19 November 2020

Protein researcher receives KFJ Prize: Mapped the smallest building blocks in the human body


Professor Jesper Velgaard Olsen from the University of Copenhagen has received one of two KFJ Awards for the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. He is honoured for his significant contribution to high-tech protein mapping using so-called mass spectrometry.

Jesper Velgaard Olsen
Photo: Anton Willemann.

Two researchers from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences receive the prestigious KFJ prizes awarded by Kirsten and Freddy Johansen’s Foundation each year for unique accomplishments within medical science, among other fields.

The pre-clinical prize goes to Professor Jesper Velgaard Olsen, Vice Director of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, and the clinical prize goes to Chief Physician and Professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine at the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Cancer Society Research Center, Susanne Krüger Kjær. Each recipient also receives DKK 1.5 million.

’It is a huge honour to receive this award. It is a great recognition of my work’, says Jesper Velgaard Olsen, who for the past 11 years has been one of the leading forces behind the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research at the University of Copenhagen.

With more than 40,000 scientific citations, he is also one of the world’s leading experts in mass spectrometric analysis of proteins termed proteomics. A mass spectrometer is like a very precise scale that can weigh protein molecules  and is used within medical science to compare healthy and sick cells, for example.

Already during his PhD studies, Jesper Velgaard Olsen, now aged 47, helped develop a unique mass spectrometric technology that has helped propel the development of biochemical and cell biology research these past years. During his career, he has played a vital role in the development of the proteomics technology as a whole, and he has contributed to making the method robust, reproducible and not least fast.  

When Jesper Velgaard Olsen enrolled as a BA student at the University of Southern Denmark in 1993, this was still a relatively new field, and the technology was slow compared to today.

‘We spent hours analysing individual proteins. Today you can analyse several thousand proteins in a matter of minutes, not least due to the orbitrap mass spectrometer, which is the first fundamentally new mass analyzer introduced for more than 20 years and the most important technological breakthrough in my time as a scientist. And the technology is still experiencing rapid developments’, he says.

Trains new researchers

Each year holds technological advances that are so great that last year’s technology soon becomes outdated. There is much competition between producers of the technology and the research groups, and Denmark must therefore be able to attract the best talents to the field.

Therefore, Jesper Velgaard Olsen, in addition to his role as Vice Director, is also head of education and career at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research.

He was offered to do his PhD project under Professor Mathias Mann, who is a pioneer in protein research and proteomics, and who is also affiliated with the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research today. In Odense, Mann had founded a biotech company that employed Jesper Velgaard Olsen after he had completed his master’s thesis in analytical chemistry.

’My PhD project got off to a great start, very much owing to my experience from the company, where I had worked for two years after completing my master’s degree. It was clear to me that I was very different from the other students. I was more mature and had a broader scientific outlook. I can very much recommend this approach to other young researchers’, says Jesper Velgaard Olsen.

As supervisor, Mathias Mann was a good motivator and inspiring discussions and brainstorming about projects. And these are values that Jesper Velgaard Olsen also aims to contribute with as supervisor.

‘Mathias Mann helped me draw the big lines, but he did not micromanage my PhD project. After all, it is the student’s project. That is also my approach as supervisor. I help my students chart a course for their projects, I discuss it with them, I support them and brainstorm with them when they struggle – and they usually do at some point in the process’, Jesper Velgaard Olsen explains.

Mass spectrometry supports cancer research

The next big breakthrough for mass spectrometry is single-cell proteomics. So far protein analysis has had to analyse an average of a number of cells, and if one cell among tens of thousands of cells behaved oddly, it would simply be lost in the crowd. But single-cell proteomics makes it possible to look at the proteins in each individual cell, and this is key to the treatment for many diseases, including cancer.

‘A malignant tumour contains many different types of cells. And the cells responsible for the cancer may be very few in number. It is therefore easier for us to target them if we can analyse all the cells in a tumour one by one, divide them into subtypes and then identify the population of cells responsible for the growth of the cancer’, Jesper Velgaard Olsen explains.

This technology will be available in the next five to 10 years, at least if the technological development continues the way it has for the last 10 years, and there is every indication that it will, he argues.

‘This appears to be the case. Today we are able to identify and quantify a few thousand proteins from a single cell. But we would like to be able to identify as many as 10,000-12,000 proteins, as this would give us the full picture’, Jesper Velgaard Olsen explains.

The KFJ Awards will be presented at a ceremony on Friday 20 November.



Professor Jesper Velgaard Olsen
+45 35325022

Press Officer Søren Thiesen
+45 28752934