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NERD programme provides opportunities for creative scientists to carry out original research

Water-based 3D printing, the growth laws of viruses and new knowledge on the origins of life are among the topics to be explored by the 2021 recipients of the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s NERD programme grants. This year, eight researchers have received grants of between DKK 9 million and DKK 14 million for their research ideas that are all creative, original, innovative and based on the natural and technical sciences.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation’s NERD (New Exploratory Research and Discovery) programme aims to support research projects in the natural and technical sciences based on wild and unorthodox ideas that can produce new knowledge within these sciences. The duration of the grants is 7 years.

“The selection and processing procedures for the NERD programme differ somewhat from our other grant programmes,” says Lene Oddershede, Senior Vice President for Natural & Technical Sciences, Novo Nordisk Foundation, who adds:

“In the first round, the evaluation committee selects projects without knowing the name of the applicant or examining their CV. This minimizes bias and increases focus on the scientific idea instead of the researcher’s history and merits. Another basic difference from other programmes is that applicants for a NERD programme grant have a limit on how much grant money they have been awarded as a main recipient elsewhere. The consequence of this Robin Hood principle is that we look forward to new researchers coming up with very original ideas. Many successful applicants at the associate professor level especially provide a wealth of ideas.”

Bacterial viruses, water paint and the world’s first living organisms
The research topics in the NERD programme are wide-ranging, naturally resulting from the grant applicants not adhering to a predetermined theme. However, the projects must be based on the sciences that the Foundation supports.

Johan Lind, Associate Professor, Department of Health Technology, Technical University of Denmark is one of the eight grant recipients in 2021. In his project WATER-PAINT: Water-based 3D Printing of Actuator- and Sensor-instrumented Tissues, Johan Lind will establish a new 3D-printing method that will enable soft electronics to be printed and integrated into human tissue. This technology may pave the way for a new generation of personalized, implantable biomedical devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators. Johan Lind is receiving a grant of DKK 12.3 million for his project.

Namiko Mitarai, Associate Professor, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, is also among the grant recipients. In her project Universal Growth Laws of Viruses of Bacteria, Namiko Mitarai will map universal and quantitative rules that most, if not all, bacteriophages follow. Discovering these universal mechanisms for how bacteriophages interact with their bacterial hosts can provide new insight into bacterial communities and the opportunity to be able to predict and manipulate their composition. Namiko Mitarai is receiving a grant of DKK 11 million for her project.

A third grant recipient, Tue Hassenkam, Associate Professor, GLOBE Institute, University of Copenhagen, has received a grant of DKK 13.8 million for his project Origin of Life – an Experimental Approach. Tue Hassenkam will uncover more knowledge about a key question for the natural sciences for centuries: how did life begin on Earth? The common assumption is that life started with a single-cell organism, but Tue Hassenkam’s hypothesis is that simpler stages of life must have existed before this. He will therefore examine relevant molecules in the laboratory to learn about key elements that can track the origin of the earliest remains of life on Earth.

See the full list of recipients of 2021 NERD programme grants below.

Creative research projects with long-term perspectives
In addition to focusing on creative and original ideas, the NERD programme has other special basic characteristics; one is the 7-year duration of the grants.

“We decided to have a full 7-year grant period because we want to promote long-term projects in which researchers move in a whole new direction, and we expect that they need considerable time before the results arrive. The NERD programme also aims at researchers who want to work in the laboratory themselves, take a hands-on approach and apply their minds to the details of the project. This is one reason why we limit how many other grants a successful applicant can be responsible for,” says Lene Oddershede, adding:

“Overall, the NERD programme is an advanced scientific sandbox, in which the individual researcher can try out their wild ideas within a slightly more free and extended framework than they might otherwise – with the aim of creating the basis for much new, exciting and unconventional research.”

Recipients of 2021 NERD programme grants

Name: Johan Lind, Associate Professor
Institution: Department of Health Technology, Technical University of Denmark, Kongens Lyngby
Project title: WATER-PAINT: Water-based 3D Printing of Actuator- and Sensor-instrumented Tissues
Grant amount: DKK 12,381,888

Description: Living tissue is three-dimensional, soft, and active, while electronics are flat and hard. In this project, we aim to bridge this gap by establishing a new 3D-printing method that will allow us to print soft electronics that can even be integrated into living human tissue. This technology may pave the way for a new generation of personalized, implantable biomedical devices, such as pacemakers, defibrillators or artificial valves. By integrating soft, printed devices with recipient cells in 3D, we can overcome immune responses and severe complications such as fibrosis and blood clots. We will also be able to build better laboratory models of the human body, where embedded sensors provide information about how the models respond to a new potential drug or a potentially toxic chemical. This will help lower the astronomical costs of developing new drugs, and may even one day make it possible to tailor drugs to small groups of patients – possibly even to individuals.

Name: Namiko Mitarai, Associate Professor
Institution: Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen
Project title: Universal Growth Laws of Viruses of Bacteria
Grant amount: DKK 11,008,837

Description: Any life forms are infected by viruses, and bacteria are no exception. This project asks the following question: are there universal, quantitative rules that most, if not all, bacterial viruses follow?  For example, is the virus production rate simply proportional to the bacterial hosts’ growth rate? Or can we categorize different classes of viruses according to how they manipulate the bacterial physiological state, with each class having their quantitative relations between bacterial growth and the viral growth?  The knowledge of robust growth laws is necessary to make quantitative predictions on spreading of viruses in microbial ecosystems. If there are universal laws, it should point to a few limiting steps of the viral growth that has governed the evolution of viruses, and it will help us to establish a general theory on viral growth. We search for the universal quantitative laws of viral growth experimentally and establish a theory to explain them.

Name: Jacob Overgaard, Associate Professor
Institution: Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University
Project title: Metal Coordination Complexes in Technology and Biomedicine
Grant amount: DKK 13,999,352

Description: A century ago, Alfred Werner received the Nobel prize for discovering the octahedral structure of transition metal complexes. Since then, quantum mechanics, crystallography and coordination chemistry has together explored the fascinating properties of metal complexes, and we are now able to explain the amazing colors and the incredible magnetic and catalytic properties of these materials. However, this does not mean that they are obsolete. Far from it, in fact. We are on the edge of the quantum computing era, and we will in this project explore the development of metal complexes as quantum bits. In a different path, we will construct multifunctional metal complexes where we combine their ability to absorb and emit light with their photoactivity. Using such a design, we will develop drugs that can be directed to specific cells where light triggers the release of small molecules, ready to take action inside cells.

Name: Dennis Valbjørn Christensen, Researcher
Institution: Department of Energy Conservation and Storage, Technical University of Denmark, Kongens Lyngby
Project title: When Superior Magnetoresistance Crosses Your Mind – a New Path to Image Brain Activity (SUPERIOR)
Grant amount: DKK 13,996,318

Description: We can get a deeper understanding of how the brain functions by detecting the tiny magnetic fields produced by the brain. A simple way to measure a magnetic field is using magnetoresistive sensors, where a magnetic field is measured by the resistance change it is causing in the sensor. However, magnetoresistive sensors are still not sensitive enough to detect the ultra-weak magnetic fields generated by the neurons in our brains. In this project, I aim to solve this problem by understanding how to control the flow of electrons in a magnetic field. I will use this knowledge to develop a new type of magnetoresistive sensors, aimed at outperforming any other magnetoresistive sensor. If successful, this will be a breakthrough in magnet field sensing that can be used in several areas including observing brain disorder, enhancing navigation and detecting small magnetic nanoparticles.

Name: Thomas Just Sørensen, Associate Professor
Institution: Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen
Project title: Creating New Probes for Redox Biology through Groundbreaking Lanthanide Coordination Chemistry and Photophysics
Grant amount: DKK 13,394,27

Description: The rare earth elements have unique magnetic and optical properties that are used in the technology that surround us. In smartphone displays, in speakers, in hard drives, in high performance batteries, and in high efficiency low energy light sources. The many applications serve as a motivator for the study of rare earth chemistry, an area where there are still a lot to discover. This NERD project will explore the fundamental chemistry of the elements, an area where we still have much to learn. In the project we will use exciting new chemistry to provide new tools for studying redox states of biological systems. Hypoxia and oxidative stress directly influence the redox state and are important in cancer, diabetes, and ageing. The idea is to advance our fundamental understanding of rare earth chemistry and use the new knowledge to create tools that will enable life-scientist to discover cures for disease and the origin of ageing.

Name: Tue Hassenkam, Associate Professor
Institution: GLOBE Institute, University of Copenhagen
Project title: Origin of Life – an Experimental Approach
Grant amount: DKK 13,860,415

Description: How did life begin on Earth? No one knows. If we track the evolution of life back in time, our current understanding ends at a small single cell organism, but still with a complex system, involving metabolism, DNA code and functional proteins. But there must have been simpler stages of life before this. Life is basically a carbon based chemical system that follows Darwinian evolution. One consequence of evolution is that life has become increasingly complex and varied over time, with size scales from few 100 nanometers to 10*s of meters. Therefore logically life must have started small and simple with a few replicating molecules, and then at a later point, evolved into the first single cell organism. We intend to test the origin of life scenarios in the lab with relevant molecules to learn about key elements on how life could have started. We also intend to track the origin of life in the geological record by analyzing for the earliest remains of life in the oldest rocks on Earth.

Name: Rodolphe Marie, Associate Professor
Institution: Department of Health Technology, Technical University of Denmark, Kongens Lyngby
Project title: Next-generation Molecular Profiling of Soft-matter Nanoparticles by Nanofluidics and Single Molecule Imaging
Grant amount: DKK 9,394,270

Description: Precise diagnostics is one of the main tools for improving cancer therapy. This can be done by purifying and analyzing nanoparticles called exosomes from biofluids such as blood and urine from patients. These exosomes carry many biomolecules from their cell of origin. This feature is used in the early diagnostics of cancer. There is currently no straightforward method to analyze exosomes. In this project, recent advances in Nanofluidics and optical fluorescence microscopy will be used to streamline and improve the analysis of such nanoparticles. A combined approach will enable us purify, measure physical parameters, and count biomolecules of interest on nanoparticles in the same device. This complete picture will bring new knowledge about exosomes from tumors, which can improve diagnostics.

Name: Amin Doostmohammadi, Assistant Professor
Institution: Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen
Project title: Topography-mediated Cellular Self-organization (TopoMed)
Grant amount: DKK 9,964,649

Description: As humans, we rely largely on vision to perceive our environment, often failing to appreciate fascinating strategies that other living systems use for sensing and communication. Striking examples are dolphins and bats that communicate by emitting sound waves and detecting the echoes that bounce back. Here, we investigate a new form of sensing and communication between cells based on modifying the topography of their environment: a cell contracts and folds its underlying substrate; a second cell senses and uses these folds to guide its motion and, in the process, reinforces the folds, sending feedback to the other cell. To understand fundamental laws and processes of this interaction we will construct a computational framework linking physics of force generation by cells to the mathematical modeling of surface topography. The results will reveal mechanical basis of cell sensing and communication with potentially profound applications in tissue repair and regeneration.

About NERD
The overall goal of NERD is to support original basic research in the natural and technical sciences, including – but not limited to – physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science. The applicants must describe how the outcome of the project has potential interdisciplinary applications in the life sciences or biotechnology.

Researchers at any career stage are eligible to apply after obtaining a PhD degree, but an applicant must not be the main beneficiary of other grants that collectively exceed DKK 4 million per year.

Further information

Marie-Louise Jersin, Senior Communications Partner, +45 3049 4957, [email protected]