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Innovation ambassadors will stimulate entrepreneurship at universities and hospitals

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded a total of DKK 30 million to five innovative researchers to explore the commercial potential of a discovery. The researchers will also serve as ambassadors for innovation at their knowledge institutions.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has designated five excellent researchers as Novo Nordisk Foundation Distinguished Innovators and has awarded each a grant of DKK 6 million over a 3-year period.

The grants will provide these researchers the necessary time and opportunity to explore the commercial potential of a research discovery while remaining at their knowledge institution.

This is the first time these grants have been awarded.

“The purpose of these grants is to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship within academia and thus ensure that research ends up benefitting both patients and society,” says Mikkel Skovborg, Senior Vice President, Innovation, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

The grant recipients will explore numerous topics that include developing a new drug candidate to benefit many people with Parkinson’s disease; a new individualized treatment to help patients who have aggressive brain tumours; and a new therapy to combat obesity.

The first five recipients of the grants are:

  • Andreas Kjær, Professor, Rigshospitalet and University of Copenhagen
  • Claus Elsborg Olesen, Senior Researcher, Aarhus University
  • Mette Rosenkilde, Professor, University of Copenhagen
  • Zachary Gerhart-Hines, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen
  • Martin Jakobsen, Associate Professor, Aarhus University

Read more about the researchers’ projects below.

Expert help to incubate the projects
During the 3-year project period, the grant recipients will receive the support they need to succeed in maturing the project, including assistance from experts in legal services, entrepreneurship and innovation – resources that are not typically available at Denmark’s research institutions.

The grants will thus enable each researcher to pursue a parallel research track in basic and translational research without derailing the researcher’s academic development or career.

These long-term grants will enable researchers to collect more data for their projects and create the conditions for the projects to mature for longer in the academic communities. The grant recipients will have to hire a project manager to run the project.

Ambassadors for innovation
The title of Novo Nordisk Foundation Distinguished Innovator emphasizes that each grant recipient must also serve as an ambassador for innovation at their university: for example, by actively mentoring students or other teachers and staff and disseminating lessons and knowledge about innovation processes.

“Researchers who have invented once or twice are more prone to invent again, and we want to support them. We also want to facilitate improved understanding of the value of innovation by designating these researchers as ambassadors for innovation,” says Mikkel Skovborg.

The five grant recipients and their projects

Andreas Kjær, Professor, Chief Physician, Rigshospitalet and University of Copenhagen.
Grant amount: DKK 6 million
Project title: uPAR-targeted Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy (PRRT): a Game-changer

Project description: Precise and optimized treatment of the individual patient is the future paradigm in cancer care. A technique well suited for this is targeted peptide receptor radionuclide therapy. This therapy makes use of radionuclides that are targeted to only affect cancer cells and thereby spare healthy tissue. This enables treatment of both the primary cancer and the possible spread of the disease, and it has few side-effects. The target in focus is called urokinase-type plasminogen activator receptor and is expressed by aggressive tumour cells. The new therapy is initially being developed for patients with aggressive brain tumours (glioblastomas) and patients with aggressive neuroendocrine tumours, since both these patient groups experience low survival rates and have few treatment options. However, as the target is expressed across various types of cancer, we intend to later expand the use to include patients with other types of cancer.

Claus Elsborg Olesen, Senior Researcher, Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University
Grant amount: DKK 6 million
Project title: Targeting the SERCA Transporter to Increase Neurons’ Cytosolic Calcium Levels as a Paradigm-changing Protection against Progressive Parkinson’s Disease

Project description: Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease for which only symptomatic treatment with limited effective duration is available. This innovation project will exploit a novel drug target for the disease identified in academic research, drug refinement, and enable the advancement of a paradigm-changing disease-modifying treatment. It is known that alpha-synuclein (AS) aggregates causes neurodegeneration, and academic research demonstrates that this is associated with the activation of a calcium pump. This innovation project aims at developing an orally available small molecule that will restore the calcium homeostasis and thereby prevent the effects of and spreading of destructive AS aggregates in the brain. The project will generate a robust biological support package by demonstrating efficacy in both in vitro and in vivo models of Parkinson’s disease, supporting the continued clinical development of a drug candidate to benefit the many people with Parkinson’s disease.

Mette Rosenkilde, Professor, Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Copenhagen
Grant amount: DKK 6 million
Project Title: Turning Virus Survival and Defence Mechanisms into Offensive Antiviral Therapy

Project description: Viruses are dangerous because of rapid spreading, lack of medication and lack of immunity, as illustrated by the recent COVID-19 outbreak. This innovative project focuses on novel antiviral principles that interfere with the way viruses use G protein–coupled receptors (GPCRs). These receptors are widely used drug targets, with about 40% of all drugs acting on them. Viruses have found ways to manipulate the host to hide from the immune system and spread in the body and to other hosts by taking advantage of host-encoded receptors or receptors incorporated in the virus genome. Our project is based on strong preliminary data and seeks to explore the commercialization potential of interfering with how viruses use these receptors. Our strategy is to directly target the receptors encoded by the virus or to prevent the interaction between virus-encoded ligands and their corresponding host-encoded receptors. As many viruses encode GPCRs or use host-encoded GPCRs, we intend to expand these antiviral principles to a variety of viruses in the future.

Zachary Gerhart-Hines, Associate Professor, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen
Grant amount: DKK 6 million
Project Title: BATTERIE: Brown Adipose Tissue Targeting of Energy-expending Receptors for Innovative Exploration

Project description: Fat tissue is often viewed negatively in the context of metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Indeed, excess fat mass is associated with cardiovascular disease, fatty liver and even some types of cancer and nervous system dysfunction. However, my goal is to actually recruit fat tissue in the fight against metabolic disease. We have recently uncovered a critical regulator that triggers fat tissue to burn, rather than store, calories. By engineering potent and selective compounds that exploit this fat-activating pathway, we believe that we can safely drive energy expenditure to levels capable of counteracting weight gain and associated pathologies. To date, the obesity market is dominated by drugs that reduce food intake with no clinically approved options targeting calorie-burning. Thus, our project represents a potential major leap in the fight against obesity and offers versatility as either standalone pharmacotherapy or in combination with food intake inhibitors.

Martin Jakobsen, Associate Professor, Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University
Grant amount: DKK 6 million
Project Title: Systemic STING Regulators as Novel Therapeutics for Advanced Cancer Immuno-oncology

Project description: Anticancer immune responses within tumours are essential for controlling the development or elimination of cancer. Today, treatments that are foreseen to gear-up the immune system for improved antitumour immune responses are being rapidly approved. Despite significant advances, only a minority of patients respond well to these new treatment options, defined in broad terms as “immunotherapies”. Preclinical studies focusing on the innate immune system demonstrate that activation of the stimulator of interferon genes (STING) pathway is essential for mounting an efficient antitumour response, mediated through T-cell activation and increased presentation of tumour antigens by dendritic cells. Nevertheless, detailed evidence on the role of STING and its biology in antitumour immunity is still lacking; making STING-based immunotherapy a black box. Here we will explore various innovative approaches, based on strong basic scientific discoveries, that may develop into future STING-based immunotherapies.

Further information

Christian Mostrup, Senior Programme Lead, +45 3067 4805, [email protected]