4 June 2024

DKK 80 million to eight SUND researchers


Eight researchers from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences receive grants from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The grants are awarded to researchers ranging from younger researchers establishing their own group and to professors at the highest international level.

Bright ideas illustrated with a light bulb
The Novo Nordisk Foundation Research Leader Programme aims to enable outstanding research while supporting the development of research leaders.

Eight researchers from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen receive a five-year grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation in their Research Leader Programme.

The purpose of the Programme is to enable outstanding research and to support the continuous development of research leaders. The Programme includes three types of grants targeting research leaders at specific or typical stages of their careers:

  • Ascending Investigator: Talented research leaders at the associate professor level in the process of consolidating their research group and profile.
  • Emerging Investigator: Upcoming and promising researchers who want to establish or are in the process of establishing their own research group and research profile.
  • Distinguished Investigator: Professors of high international standing and calibre.

The grants all amount to DKK 80 million. In total, SUND receives DKK 80 million to Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine (ICMM), Department of Forensic Medicine (RI), Department of Biomedical Sciences (BMI), Department of Neuroscience (IN), Center for Translational Neuromedicine (CTN) and Globe Institute (Globe).

Read about the eight grant recipients and their projects below.

Distinguished Investigator

Professor Signe Torekov Sørensen, BMI – DKK 10,000,000

Title: FutureShape Family – AI-Enhanced Family Interventions Paving the Way for Sustainable Childhood Well-being

Childhood obesity is a big problem globally. This study introduces AI SYNERGY Family Care, a new way to help children stay healthy involving their families and using technology. It is different because it considers how parents’ weight and habits affect their children. The study will involve 400 families dealing with obesity, comparing this new approach with the usual care methods. The key idea is to use both medicine to help parents lose weight and an AI system that tracks family behaviors in real-time. This aims to improve how active they are, their sleep, and eating habits together. The goal is that if parents can stay healthy, their kids will too. The study hopes to change how we deal with childhood obesity, using AI to promote healthier habits that last through generations. If successful, this could transform healthcare and science, making a big impact on future generations’ health.

Emerging Investigator

Assistant Professor Freja Herborg, IN – DKK 9,999,666

Title: Neural substrates of social impairments: how ancient emotional networks interact

Unraveling the complex interactions among neural circuits in the brain is pivotal to advance our understanding of psychiatric disorders and symptoms like social impairments that are common across a spectrum of mental health conditions. Oxytocin is an evolutionarily conserved hormone and signaling molecule that has emerged as a possible mediator of social deficits and is known to interact intricately with other ancient circuits such as the dopaminergic and serotonergic systems, in ways that remain poorly understood. This project will bring together novel genetic disease models of ADHD and depression with state-of-the-art imaging techniques to delineate how disease-relevant changes in dopaminergic and serotonergic signaling affect oxytocin function and influence social behaviors and drug responses. With these efforts, we seek to uncover new insights into the neural processes of social deficits, with potential implications for developing circuit-based strategies to treat social impairments.

Assistant Professor Elene Zavala, RI – DKK 9,999,999

Title: Characterizing individuals and evolutionary history with sediment DNA

DNA analyses have transformed the study of our evolutionary past as well as forensic investigations. These application areas, while seemingly disparate, have many similarities. Both use low-quality, degraded DNA to reconstruct past events and are often limited to where skeletal remains were recovered. I wish to develop new methods to use sediment DNA to comprehensively explore human presence at recent and distant timescales. Using sediment DNA from Bronze Age England, I will examine the genetic ancestry and phenotypic traits of people as well as their animal husbandry and domestication practices. I will also investigate how sediment DNA can aid forensic casework by assessing its reliability for the identification of missing individuals. The goals are to study the demographic history of Bronze Age England, aid in forensics investigations, and establish new benchmarks to advance research in both fields.

Assistant Professor Anniek Lubberding, BMI – DKK 10,000,000

Title: Let’s not PASs on a novel, unique, cardiac-safe drug target for type 2 diabetes: The PAS domain of K+ channel Kv11.1

Type 2 diabetes occurs when secretion of insulin does not meet the body’s demands. Insulin secretion is dependent on ion channels, which transport ions across the cell membrane. People with mutations in an ion channel called Kv11.1 have increased insulin secretion, but I recently identified that insulin secretion is only increased if the mutation lies in a specific part of the channel: the so-called PAS domain. This domain does not transport ions, but is responsible for contact with other proteins, potentially proteins involved in the secretion of insulin. The aim of this project is to investigate the role of the PAS domain in insulin secretion and blood sugar control by developing a new, state-of-the-art mouse model, using several human databases and a small clinical trial, and testing novel pharmacology. As such, this project will highlight unconventional roles of ion channels previously unrecognized and will provide the first steps to a new treatment strategy in diabetes.

Assistant Professor Verena Untiet, CTN – DKK 10,000,000

Title: Astrocytic chloride as key modulator of excitation/inhibition balance in healthy and diseased brain

Epilepsy affects over 6 million people in Europe and current treatments are mainly focused on relieving symptoms. In neurons from brain slices of patients with epilepsy, the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA becomes excitatory. In healthy condition, this inhibition is mainly mediated via chloride (Cl^-) influx into neurons, which hyperpolarizes the cell and suppresses excitation. The direction of Cl- movement depends on the Cl- gradient across the membrane. Astrocytes are cells in the brain that help maintain ion balance, and I have recently shown that astrocytic Cl^- levels can affect how long neurons remain active. My hypothesis is that when Cl^- levels are disturbed in astrocytes, neuronal signaling is disrupted. Regulation of Cl^- levels in astrocytes might represent a new therapeutic target for treatment of epilepsy. The main goal of the research work is to identify astrocytic Cl^- homeostatic pathways as targets for therapeutical strategies to treat epileptic seizures.

Assistant Professor Jazmin Madrigal, Globe – DKK 9,947,884

Title: Disentangling the interplay between plant genomes and their symbiotic bacteria during domestication

Plant domestication allowed the rise of complex societies. Large efforts have been made to understand the evolutionary processes behind plant domestication. However, a key aspect of plant domestication remains mainly unexplored: the role of the root microbiome. In this project, we will use legumes to study the coevolution of the plant-root microbiome interaction throughout the domestication process. As legumes recruit beneficial soil bacteria into specialised root structures, they provide and ideal contained system to study the plants and their microbiomes jointly through time. Using modern and ancient genomes, we will study wild and domesticated plants and their root microbes, characterise their domestication history, identify selection signatures correlating with changes in root microbial diversity, identify co-dispersion patterns, and develop an integrative model for plant domestication. By reconstructing the evolutionary history of plants’ beneficial associations with microbes, we will contribute to drawing a blueprint for replicating solutions evolution came up with, ultimately bringing us closer to robust sustainable agriculture.

Ascending Investigator

Assistant Professor Lykke Sylow, BMI – DKK 9,999,976

Title: Unveiling the coordination between the mitochondrial and cytosolic translatomes in muscle to mitigate metabolic dysfunctions

Our muscles play a crucial role in our daily life, health, and overall well-being. As we age, there is a natural decline in muscle function, and certain diseases like diabetes and cancer can make it worse. To make sure our muscles stay healthy and function properly, they require certain proteins. These proteins play a crucial role in producing energy and regulating the amount of glucose (sugar) in muscle. This research project aims to understand how these proteins are made and how factors like exercise, inactivity, or obesity affect this process. By gaining insights into these mechanisms, we hope to enhance treatments for age- and disease-related muscle issues, ultimately improving quality of life.

Associate Professor Yoshiki Narimatsu, ICMM – DKK 10,000,000

Title: GlycoReader - Exploring how to human glycome

Sugars cover surfaces of all living cells and these glycans are essential for many of the biological processes required for human life and our relationship with the microbial world. Glycans, much like DNA and proteins, contain information that needs to be decoded. Information in glycans is “read” by glycan-binding proteins and these direct biological signals and functions. The simple way we currently understand how proteins read glycans does not provide a plausible explanation for the great diversity of functions assigned to glycans. I therefore propose that glycans are read in more complex ways. I have developed a novel technology that enables analysis of such complex glycan motif, and recently I obtained the first experimental evidence to support my hypothesis. In this project, I will therefore explore how complex glycan motifs modulate our immune system and how bacteria and virus gain entry and cause pathologies through glycans. The project has wide biomedical perspectives.