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Three UCPH scientists get DKK 60 million – each

Grants — The Novo Nordisk Foundation has granted a total of DKK 360 million from the foundation's Challenge Programme, divided into six different projects. Three of the recipients are UCPH researchers.

DKK 360 million – this is the sum awarded under the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Challenge Programme to find answers to some of the global challenges in the fields of technology and health.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation allocates the money once a year, and this year they have been granted, in particular, to research on the handling of large amounts of data in the field of biomedicine, and to themes within the field of the design of biological molecules.

The money is granted to six-year projects, with DKK 10 million paid out each year, and the allocation was announcted this year on Tuesday, 16th January.

We live longer – but with more diseases

The three scientists from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) who each receive DKK 60 million are Professor Søren Brunak, Professor Rudi Westendorp and Professor Dimitrios Stamou.

A common theme in all the projects is the connection between aging and illness in a life-span perspective using the unique public Danish patient records.

It will improve our understanding of aging and the quality of life with increasing life expectancy which has us living longer and longer, but with more and more diseases.

Søren Brunak: Is investigating both healthy and sick individuals

Professor Søren Brunak, Research Director at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research at UCPH, is one of the happy grant recipients.

“The grant is fantastic because the theme fits my priorities. I know that the competition to get a Challenge Programme grant is very hard and I am therefore also humbled by being chosen. There are other good projects that did not get it, so I’m really satisfied,” says Søren Brunak, and explains what the money is to be spent on:

The new thing about this project is that we have a strong focus on healthy individuals

Professor Søren Brunak

“We are interested in following the patients for many years. The new thing about this project is that we have a strong focus on healthy individuals. We follow 100,000 blood donors in collaboration with the Blood Donor Study, and they are generally more healthy than your average healthy person, as they otherwise cannot become blood donors. Some of them, however, end up getting a disease and we will be able to study the entire transition from health to sickness if they, say, get diabetes.”

Quality of life before and after illness

Measurements are already being made on blood donors’ samples, but for Søren Brunak’s project, the donors have also agreed that their socioeconomic data can be included in the analysis – and this is an important contribution.

“We’re ‘rewinding’ them in all areas to see if their disease has come forth earlier than we could have seen before,” says Søren Brunak, adding that it is about collecting all available data.

“We try to get a very accurate picture of people before they get sick and after they have been treated. What is their quality of life at those times and what is the connection to the treatment chosen and their subsequent quality of life? We make up the whole picture in much more detail – both before and after the illness,” says Søren Brunak.

To safeguard our health data in the cloud

Apart from this, his project – ‘Big life-course data analytics for understanding disease initiation and progression in diabetes and its complications’ – also aims to set up a safe framework for the storage of health data.

Much of his work uses data from the national statistics bureau Statistics Denmark and from international data sources, but it is necessary to find new ways to store health data.

“Data should be in closed environments, where not even our own employees can gain access, and employees should not be even able to take screenshots etc. We also use ‘secure private cloud technology’ to better take care of security. Of course, we trust our employees, but they can make mistakes too, and with some new security systems we can prevent the consequences of it. In addition, all our data is stored in the project’s own clouds in Denmark,” says Søren Brunak.

Rudi Westendorp: Delaying the onset of old age fragility

The second UCPH-employed grant recipient is Professor Rudi Westendorp from the Department of Public Health.

He also works on understanding aging better, in order to find out how it is possible to influence the biomolecular processes.

OTHER Grant recipients

In total, Novo Nordisk awarded DKK 360m for six projects. The three non-UCPH recipients, each for DKK 60m are:

Professor Morten Sommer, Novo Nordisk Foundation, Biosustainability Center, Technical University of Denmark (DTU): Center for Advanced Microbiome Therapeutics.

Professor Kurt Gothelt, Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center and Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University: Center for Multifunctional Biomolecular Drug Design.

Professor Clive Sabel, Department of Environmental Science at Aarhus University: Big Data Center for Environment and Health.

Like Søren Brunak, he works on getting the best possible benefits out of the unique data on health and diseases found in Danish patient records.

The purpose of Rudi Westendorp’s project is to delay the fragility of old age, create individual therapies and give more people the opportunity to experience more healthy years of life.

Rudi Westendorp’s project is called Harnessing The Power of Big Data to Address the Societal Challenge of Aging.

Dimitrio Stamou: Cancer treatment and medicine

Professor Dimitrios Stamou of the Department of Chemistry at UCPH hopes his project will be of great importance to the health sector. This is by making important contributions to the treatment of cancer diseases and to the development of medicine in general.

His project is named: Center for Geometrically Engineered Cellular Systems.

In order for our cells to evolve, adapt and reproduce, the myriads of molecules in each cell are arranged in very precise patterns.

With his project, Dimitrios Stamou wants to engineer these patterns to gain control over the behavior and function of living cells.

You can read an interview (in Danish) with Dimitrios Stamou here.