Important medical prize goes to researchers in psychiatry and malaria – University of Copenhagen

Health > News > KFJ Prize

19 June 2015

Important medical prize goes to researchers in psychiatry and malaria

KFJ Prize

Friday, 19 June, the Kirsten and Freddy Johansen Foundation will present Professor Merete Nordentoft with the Clinical Prize for her work with the prevention of suicide and treatment of young people with psychoses and Professor Thor Theander will receive the Preclinical Prize for his research into malaria during pregnancy. They each receive DKK 1.5 million.

“The most important aspect of my work is the treatment of young people with psychoses. Which is also the greatest achievement of my research group, because our methods have changed the map of psychiatric treatment. Our methods have been implemented and are now in use in many different places. I’m happy and honoured to receive such an important recognition of my profession.”

As Merete Nordentoft explained when she was asked about the KFJ Prize and her work with psychoses in young people. The research project OPUS has spread across much of Merete Nordentoft’s career. It is an outreach psychosocial treatment that includes both the young person and their family. The young person will also be allocated an interdisciplinary liaison, who will help acquire help from relevant professionals throughout the treatment, e.g. social workers, doctors or drug consultants. The treatment helps establish greater peace and trust for the young people and their, often despairing, parents. The patients also spend fewer days in bed, they receive improved medical treatment and they are less likely to fall out of treatment, which all combined results in better prognoses for young people with psychiatric disorders.

Merete Nordentoft is 60 years old. In 1982, she completed her medical studies at the University of Copenhagen, and in 1994, she became a specialist in psychiatry. Upon completing her PhD in 1994, she became a Master of Public Health from the Nordic School of Public Health in Gothenburg with her thesis “Suicide and Attempted Suicide”. In 2007, she became a DMSc at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, UCPH, with her thesis “Prevention of Suicide and Attempted Suicide in Denmark. Epidemiological studies of suicide and intervention studies in selected risk groups”.

Currently, Merete Nordentoft works as a consultant doctor at the Psychiatric Centre Copenhagen, where she also heads a research unit with more than 50 affiliated researchers. The teaching, research and experiments that are carried out here maintain a high learning element in Merete Nordentoft’s everyday life.

“We learn a lot from each other, internally in the research group, and we utilize our expertise on many levels, e.g. when we meet students, patients and organisations”, Merete Nordentoft explains.

Along with four other Danish researchers, she established the research consortium iPSYCH, which has received two large grants from Lundbeckfonden. The purpose of iPSYCH is the prevention of psychiatric disorders by determining hereditary and environmental causality.

Merete Nordentoft has worked with the prevention of suicide since 1997 and she has played a huge role in the Danish action plan for the prevention of suicide. Her focus on early prevention has been of great importance to the work with reducing the number of suicides. Through her sincere commitment to the psychiatric area, she has combined a very high level of professionalism with a focus on patients, healthcare policy engagement, and considerations on how psychiatric patients can be submitted to hospital in a dignified manner. She also chairs OMBOLD, which is a spots club for socially vulnerable people and she is a board member at Livslinien (Life Line).

Years of work and collaboration in malaria research

58-year-old Thor G. Theander completed his medical studies at the University of Copenhagen in 1982. Ever since his training days, he has conducted research into malaria, because malaria combines his professional interest in the immune system and microorganisms and his personal wish to contribute to the restoration of the great global inequality in terms of the distribution of life, disease and death. From early on, his goal was clear: he wanted to contribute to the development of a malaria vaccine. After graduation in 1982, Thor Theander spent 1½ year in hospitals around Copenhagen as a senior registrar, until he was offered a research position at Rigshospitalet’s Department of Infectious Diseases. Here he explored how the immune system’s cells functioned in patients who were committed to hospital upon being infected abroad. However, Thor Theader quickly realised that research into malaria would have to be based on more than lab tests and tourist malaria, and so he established extensive collaborations with researchers initially in Sudan and later also in Ghana and Tanzania.

In 1988, Thor Theander started working at UCPH, where in 1991, he helped establish the Centre for Medical Parasitology (CMP), which today is among the largest and leading malaria research groups with researchers from Rigshospitalet and the State Serum Institute. At CMP he continued working with the research results from Sudan, Tanzania and Ghana, and 2003 saw a great breakthrough on the road to creating a malaria vaccine for pregnant women. Together with his colleague Ali Salanti, Thor Theander identified the protein that binds the malaria parasite to the placenta. But it took another 12 years to develop the vaccine, which is now ready for clinical testing on women later in 2015.

“Malaria is a very complex illness. First off, we had to understand which mechanisms render the body immune to the illness, and this took us 14 years. Then we had to replica this natural mechanism and develop it into a vaccine. When I was young, I never thought that it would take this long, but we have come a very long way,” Thor Theander explains.

In addition to his work on malaria in pregnant women, he and his colleagues are working on a vaccine for brain-malaria in children. This research is based in Tanzania. As an integrated part of the research, Thor Theander has been part of the educational team for more than 20 PhD students in African partner countries, because building up capacity is an essential part of the work:

“We prioritise the sharing of knowledge and technology to ensure that all parties are able to enhance their professional capacity. This is not about succeeding with the one project; we also need to lift our institutions in a broader perspective. Which is why all work is planned and carried out in collaboration with our partners further South, and the results that we have accomplished have only been made possible because of our skilled colleagues in the African partner countries. This prize is a huge recognition of our shared work, which makes me very proud and happy,” Thor Theander stresses.

Sanne Lund
Mobile: 24 95 97 40