2 September 2019

Major grant strengthens leading Danish position in protein research


The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded EUR 93.5m to the University of Copenhagen's internationally acclaimed research center, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research. The Center receives this award to unfold its ambitious scientific vision after a comprehensive performance evaluation of the Center by an independent committee of leading international scientists. The grant covers a five year period and will enable the Center to map proteins in the human body, explain their function and pave the way for better understanding a wide range of diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

Since its inauguration in 2009, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research has placed Danish biomedical research firmly onto the world map by creating a highly successful international beacon of leading researchers and advanced technologies to study the exciting world of proteins. Proteins are of great importance because they are involved in all functions of the human body. Almost all drugs are also designed to target proteins and an increasing number of drugs are themselves proteins.

The new funding will allow the Center to build on its achievements and lead the worldwide effort in uncovering how proteins govern these essential physiological processes. It will also enable the researchers to investigate how these important mechanisms are altered in human diseases, and to expand collaborations with hospitals to improve diagnostics, enhance the efficacy of current treatments and develop new drugs.

”We are incredibly privileged by the trust shown in us by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. Their visionary concept of long-term funding has allowed us to transform protein research to a whole new level. Discoveries made by our scientists have been instrumental in realising that while proteins can indeed be regarded as true ‘workhorses’ of our bodies, it is the intricate combination of the chemical modifications and interactions with each other that actually governs physiological functions. The new grant will allow us to lead the world-wide effort in investigating how protein networks communicate and how to harness this knowledge for improved disease management", says the Center's Executive Director, Prof Jiri Lukas.

Protein pioneers in Copenhagen
In the past decades, the astounding success of large-scale methods such as DNA sequencing has driven a paradigm shift in medicine and healthcare on a global scale. Instead of looking at one gene or one patient at a time, whole genomes or massive volumes of patient data can be analysed at the same time. Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research has taken up the challenge of advancing this revolution in biomedicine in the protein universe by studying all proteins of the human body – the so-called proteome – with unprecedented depth and accuracy. They have done this by combining innovative technology, in many cases developed by the researchers, with a strong biological focus and major investments in bioinformatics, health record mining, and big data analytics.

In particular, the researchers have spearheaded this technological revolution by developing new methods in highly advanced mass spectrometry to reconstruct protein signaling networks and to decipher protein modifications, including those that could not be easily studied before. Using this approach, the researchers have undertaken the most extensive proteome sequencing of an individual human cell leading to the identification of more than 14,000 different proteins.

They have also applied advanced light and electron microscopy, large-scale protein purification, big data analytics, supercomputers and artificial intelligence approaches to gain a 360 degree understanding of protein function. This has also allowed them to revolutionise knowledge of how proteins can be combined with health data from the general public, how proteins protect the integrity of genetic information stored in human chromosomes, and how protein structure can guide the emerging genome editing technologies towards safer medical applications.

These breakthroughs in basic protein research will inevitably lead to a deeper understanding of the development of disease and potential improvements to current disease treatment strategies. The Center’s research programs are all contributing to this joint effort through big data analysis of thousands of patients, rational drug design through protein structure and mechanistic understanding, or proteome analysis of body fluids that can revolutionize the diagnosis of disease.  

“We are impressed with the results achieved by the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research since 2009. The Center is now internationally recognized for the synergy between its programmes within protein research and for spearheading protein research technology. With the new grant, we want to enable the Center to uncover fundamental protein mechanisms and transform new knowledge into collaborations with clinical environments to benefit patients and society,” says Birgitte Nauntofte, CEO, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Read more about protein research here.

Educating future leaders in protein-driven biomedicine
The new grant will also foster the Center’s already strong integration in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences to educate and train future leaders in protein-driven biomedicine. The researchers are spearheading educational activities with the aim of connecting basic and translational research. These include the BRIDGE programme for building bridges between universities, hospitals and the life science industry.

Further, as the ‘oldest’ in the cluster of ‘centers of excellence’ at the University of Copenhagen, the Center has naturally acquired the role of a frontrunner in promoting synergy through disseminating technologies and knowhow. This has had a major impact on the immediate research community in the fields of stem cells, cancer, skin disease, diabetes and obesity.

”We are incredibly proud of the Novo Nordisk Foundation's recognition and willingness to continue the positive development of our internationally strong research center. With its many high-impact research publications and the unique ability to boost the level of coming generations of protein researchers, the Center is a true role model for the Faculty.”, says Dean Ulla Wewer, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

Staying at the cutting edge by attracting the best minds
Since the Center’s inauguration in 2009, almost 200 staff in four specialised research programmes have raised the bar for how different disciplines in protein research can work together under the same roof.

Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research has been fortunate that all its current research programs (proteomics, protein signaling, protein structure, and disease systems biology) have been headed up by world leaders (Professors Matthias Mann, Jiri Lukas, Guillermo Montoya and Søren Brunak).

The new grant will enable the Center to broaden the scope of its research by opening a fifth research programme covering the medically highly relevant area of epigenetics. This new research programme, called ‘protein memory’, will be headed by Professor Anja Groth, a highly accomplished and internationally acclaimed molecular biologist, who is joining the Center in January 2020.

Contact points
Center Director and professor Jiri Lukas


Communications Adviser
Andreas Westergaard
Mail: andreas.westergaard@sund.ku.dk 
Telephone: +45 53 59 32 80