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Laura Rupprecht

Duke University

For all the money the food industry has poured into alternative sweeteners, there’s nothing quite like the taste of good old-fashioned sugar. But scientists are now trying to probe that hard-wired preference as rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic disorders rise. Duke neuroscience postdoctoral researcher Laura Rupprecht is at the forefront of understanding the biological underpinnings of our fondness for sugar — and how it might be controlled to help people lead healthier lives.

One revelation? Our proverbial sweet tooth has little to do with the sensation of sugar hitting your tongue. Mice without working taste buds still prefer sugary water. But snip out a certain region of the small intestine and mice lose their love for sweets.

Rupprecht and colleagues identified a specialized intestinal cell that plays a key role in sensing sugar and relaying signals through the nervous system that reach the brain. The long-term vision, she said, is to target these cells in ways that make sugar substitutes more appealing.

Long before she started running experiments, Rupprecht was running track and cross-country in her hometown of Jefferson, Md., home to 2,500 residents. And she says that the constant drive to push herself while also working alongside others has served her well in research.

“You are on the course doing your individual thing as best as you can. But you know that you have your teammates out there running as hard as they can at the same time,” she said. “That mentality really carries over into science.”

— Jonathan Wosen