24 October 2019

Attractive Grant Programme for Research into Swine Flu and Zoonoses

NNF Challenge Programme

Can we prevent that certain types of influenza viruses develop into pandemics by early detection? Backed by a grant of DKK 60 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Challenge Programme, Professor Lars Erik Larsen is going to study just that.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation Challenge Programme is the Foundation's largest individual grant programme, totalling around DKK 60 million over six years. The programme shall support and promote world-class research that focuses on finding answers to contemporary challenges within global technology or health. This year, Professor Lars Erik Larsen, the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, has been awarded the prestigious grant.

‘I was employed at the University of Copenhagen in March after almost 25 years at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and will have to build up a new research group. This grant is the perfect foundation for this as it will ensure both high quality research and critical mass from day 1. For the next six years we can now focus on the question that has been our research focus since 2010: Why are only a few swine flu viruses showing zoonotic potential, and how can we predict which ones?’ says Lars Erik Larsen, who is a trained veterinarian with more than 25 years of experience in research on virus infections in animals.

Viral Genetic Markers Shall Reveal Zoonotic Potential

For the past 10 years, he has been researching the impact of swine flu on the health of pigs, while at the same time focusing on the zoonotic potential. Through Danish and EU supported research projects, he and his research group have identified a number of new influenza virus variants that have incorporated genes from human influenza virus. They have found evidence that there is a continuous transmission of influenza genes from humans to pigs, which could potentially pose a risk to humans if transmitted back.

The group can test these variants by infecting ferrets as a model for humans, but the method is resource-intensive, uses animal models and is not always a precise indicator of whether a variant may be zoonotic. Therefore, Lars Erik Larsen focuses on identifying viral genetic markers that can reveal whether an influenza variant has zoonotic potential, without consuming a lot of resources and without the use of animal models. The research team works closely with immunologists who have the tools and expertise to characterise the response to infection.

‘By studying both aspects of the infection, we hope to not only be able to identify markers in the virus, but also to be able to document the importance of the qualitative and quantitative immune response to a particular variant. If we succeed in identifying markers that are likely to pinpoint variants with the potential for infecting humans, we can build vaccine virus stocks. In that way, we can be ready immediately if the virus in question infects humans and triggers a new pandemic‘, says Lars Erik Larsen.

In addition to the University of Copenhagen, researchers from ‘Statens Serum Institute’, DTU and St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Memphis, USA, are part of the project group.

300 million for three research areas

In total, the Novo Nordisk Foundation has distributed DKK 300 million for research through the Challenge Program 2019. In addition to the two grants in the area of ​​Emerging Infectious Diseases, the Foundation has given DKK 120 million for research in the theme of Modern Plant Science - Towards a Sustainable World and DKK 60 million for research within the theme of How Dietary Factors Affect the Human Microbiome. Every year, the Novo Nordisk Foundation's Challenge Program awards a sum to research projects in changing themes. The Foundation has just opened for applications for Challenge Program 2020. Read more about the themes and the application procedure here.