16 January 2018

DKK 120 Million to Two SUND Big Data Research Projects


Two research projects at SUND have received a total of DKK 120 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Challenge Programme. One of the two projects researches biomedical big data and how data can help give us a better understanding of diseases, including diabetes. The other project researches how big data can help address societal challenges following from ageing.

The Challenge Programme is the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s largest individual support programme with six-year grants of DKK 60 million. The programme is intended to support and promote world-class research focussing on solving present-day challenges within global technology or health. This year two research projects from SUND receive the prestigious grant. The projects are conducted by researchers at the Center for Healthy Aging and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, respectively.

Health Data Will Give Us a Better Understanding of Healthy Ageing
One of the two projects is called ‘Harnessing the Power of Big Data to Address the Societal Challenge of Aging’ and is conducted by researchers at the Center for Healthy Aging. Within a tight legal and ethical framework, they intend to use modern computer-supported analyses to increase our understanding of the ageing process and to explore how the underlying biomolecular processes can be changed.

Professor Rudi Westendorp from the Department of Public Health and the Center for Healthy Aging is looking forward to starting the project.

‘The fact that we live longer and the number of years we have to live with a disease impact on our quality of life. Age is the most significant risk factor for most chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and dementia, but we still do not know why. The project gathers a group of talented researchers from different areas of expertise to ensure that we get the most out of the unique health data stored in Denmark’s official records. We wish to prevent and postpone the fragility experienced in old age. In the long term this will make it possible to customise treatments and ensure that more people live a healthy life for longer’, says Rudi Westendorp.

Cooperation between several research fields is key for the project, Rudi Westendorp adds:

'The grant enables us to build bridges between the exploding fields of molecular and cellular research as performed within the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, novel imaging techniques as developed within the Pathology Department at Rigshospitalet, and ultimately the unique data sources within Statistics Denmark. It is exactly this type of interdisciplinary research that the Center for Healthy Aging is striving for'. 

Co-applicants and partners in the project are Director of Social Statistics at Statistics Denmark, Niels Ploug, and Professors Lene Juel Rasmussen and Thomas Kirkwood, both from the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and the Center for Healthy Aging.

Big Data Shall Create a Knowledge Basis for Personal Treatment
The second SUND project to receive the Challenge Programme grant is ‘Big life-course data analytics for understanding disease initiation and progression in diabetes and its complications’ headed by Professor Søren Brunak from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research. The project uses big data to study all diseases as a whole, focussing especially on the order in which they appear in life.

This also includes large amounts of data from healthy individuals, e.g. Danish and foreign blood donors, who have consented to their data being analysed. The project focusses on diabetes in particular and on understanding the transition from healthy to sick and the many alternative clinical pathways that can lead to diabetes. The research contributes to creating a knowledge basis for new forms of personal treatment, just as it technically creates a new secure framework for health data storage and data analysis. This infrastructure may subsequently be used in the hospitals to improve the treatment of the individual patients.

’Treatment of patients is a complex task, among other things because the patients’ genetics and conditions of life vary greatly. We are designed to survive as a species rather than as individuals, and that results in very different courses of illness. The new project combines data from extremely diverse areas, hospitals, municipalities, Statistics Denmark and international sources in a partnership between big data partners who all have very large, unique amounts of data at their disposal. Unique to this project is that we also focus on the treatment results, such as who returns to work and the patients’ subsequent need for care and rehabilitation. Personal medicine is more than accurate treatment and molecular insight; it is also about understanding treatment results in detail. It is a very interesting project that uses massive Danish and foreign data sets in new ways’, says Søren Brunak.

The three project partners are Professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine and Clinical Director, DMSc at Rigshospitalet Henrik Ullum, Statistician and Chief Adviser Laust Mortensen from Statistics Denmark and PhD and Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, England Ewan Birney. 

Each year the Novo Nordisk Foundation grants up to DKK 360 million to up to six Challenge Programme projects. Read more about the other projects in the press release from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.