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DKK 235m boost to Copenhagen stem cell research

Novo Nordisk Foundation's grant has lightened up the dark winter months at the research center DanStem and at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

Stem cells are an important part of the organism, but our knowledge about the body’s building blocks is far from complete.

The DanStem research centre at the University of Copenhagen is researching what role the stem cells play in a healthy and an unhealthy body. Now, a DKK 235 million donation from the Novo Nordisk Foundation will help them find out more about what stem cells do in relation to diabetes and cancer.

Professor Henrik Sembs and his team at the research center are excited about it:

“By studying stem cells we learn how the body develops under normal conditions. But also how stem cells affect different disease processes. This will eventually mean that we can develop new tools to treat disease. Either in the form of medicine or as stem cells that can be inserted into the body. It could for example be insulin producing stem cells that can replace the beta cells that diabetes patients lack,” Henrik Semb says.

Finding the root cause

Henrik Sembs, who is also the director of DanStem, believes that it is essential that the center keeps its focus on limited and specific areas of research.

“Our hypothesis about cancer is, that cancer occurs in a stem cell. That is why we see that new medical treatments and drugs do not finish off the cancer completely, but only stop it for limited periods of time. It reappears because the root cause of cancer is in the stem cells. This is especially the case regarding certain types of cancer found in the blood and breast tissue,” he says.

The white areas are insulin in beta cells that researchers have created from human embryonic stem cells. (Photo: Jacqueline Ameri)

Donation with no strings attached

DanStem and The Novo Nordisk Foundation have had close contact ever since the the research centre’s inception. The first donation from the foundation came four years ago, when Henrik Semb was also chosen to be in charge of the building and direction of the centre. The donation does not dictate what research the centre is to do.

“The donation was given to us without any provisos. This is not an investment from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, but we of course hope that our research produces results that eventually can benefit society. From an outsider’s perspective it is something unique that you have a private foundation that donates such a large amount of money to basic research.”

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has in the last years invested DKK 3.5 billion in research centres hosted in Danish Universities. A large portion of that has gone to research centres that are part of the University of Copenhagen.

Research driven by curiosity

In 2007, the foundation donated DKK 600 million to a protein research center, and in 2010 the foundation paid DKK 885 million to a centre on metabolism research, both part of the University of Copenhagen. In 2010 the Novo Nordisk Foundation donated DKK 350 million to the university’s stem cell research, and now once again in the form of DKK 250m.

The money to DanStem includes money to be used to attract new research talent and research group leaders. The Center is financed for 10 years, but Henrik Semb and his colleagues have the possibility to get an extension if the results are good in terms of new medicines and treatments.

“Basic research is essential. We have to have places like DanStem, where the research is driven by curiosity,” Henrik Semb points out.

Shows we are heading in the right direction

But in a world where there is less and less space for basic research, it is also important that the centre produces results.

“When you are working with basic research there will be opportunities available to make the results useful in other avenues. That is why we have a two-pronged strategy at the centre. One is to focus on the basic research, two is to focus on how to make the research applicable.”

Henrik Semb is looking forward to the coming years: “With this donation we are able to aggressively pursue our goal. It is especially positive for the young researchers because they can see that the centre has a future. But I am also personally happy, as the donation shows that our research and results are heading in the right direction.”

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