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Novo Nordisk Prize Recipient Finds Answers in the Borderland Between Research Fields

Jørgen Kjems, Professor at Aarhus University, is receiving the 2018 Novo Nordisk Prize for his pioneering interdisciplinary studies of how RNA, the biological cousin of DNA, plays a key role in regulating cells and has enormous future potential in treating disease.

Jørgen Kjems’ scientific activities have always been technically and conceptually innovative. He contributed to challenging a key dogma within human biology early in his career when he and colleagues discovered that RNA has several unexpected key functions in relation to human genes.

At that time, most researchers thought that RNA simply functioned as a messenger between DNA and cellular proteins.

“We helped to demonstrate that, in addition to transporting genetic information, RNA also acts as a key regulator of various cell processes. Since then, it has been shown that up to 90% of all RNA probably has other key functions, such as regulating human genes,” says Jørgen Kjems.

Among the many important new scientific breakthroughs to which Jørgen Kjems’ group has contributed, a crucial one was the discovery in 2011 that circular RNA is highly prevalent in most organisms, including people. Circular RNA has a very important role in regulating other genes in the body.


In 2013, the research group confirmed in an article published in Nature that circular RNA functions as a kind of sponge that absorbs other RNA molecules and proteins so that they do not affect cellular metabolism. The more than 10,000 types of circular RNA therefore strongly influence the body’s regulatory mechanisms and are therefore also essential in diagnosing, preventing and treating for instance cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Jørgen Kjems is receiving the 2018 Novo Nordisk Prize for his outstanding research efforts. The Prize is awarded to recognize unique medical research or other research contributions that benefit medical science. The Novo Nordisk Foundation awards the Prize, which is accompanied by DKK 3 million.

“I am extremely honoured and very surprised to receive the Prize. I am grateful for the recognition of the importance of interdisciplinarity and wide-ranging vision that enables researchers to carry out both basic research and applied research within medicine. I consider this Prize as recognizing not just my research but also that of my colleagues,” says Jørgen Kjems.

Jørgen Frøkiær, Chair of the Novo Nordisk Prize Committee, says, “Throughout his career, Jørgen Kjems has conducted comprehensive, systematic and very original research that has produced pioneering new research on RNA and related fields. The numerous scientific results Jørgen Kjems has achieved through an interdisciplinary approach are both impressive and outstanding. Jørgen Kjems is a very worthy recipient of the 2018 Novo Nordisk Prize.”

Jørgen Kjems has been Professor of Molecular Biology and Nanoscience at Aarhus University since 2003. In 2013, he was appointed Director of the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO) at Aarhus University, which integrates physics, chemistry, biology and medicine. In 2017, Jørgen Kjems was further appointed Director of CellPAT (Centre for Cellular Cell Patterns), funded by the Danish National Research Foundation. CellPAT aims to identify how cells talk to each other and thereby enable the types of communication errors that lead to disease to be prevented or corrected.


Born 1958 in Gråsten, Denmark

Professor, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics and Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO), Aarhus University

2017– : Director, Centre for Cellular Signal Patterns (CellPAT),
Aarhus University, funded by the Danish National
Research Foundation

2014–2018: Director, Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO),
Aarhus University

2010–2016: Director, Lundbeck Foundation
Nanomedicine Centre for Individualized Management of
Tissue Damage and Regeneration (LUNA), Aarhus University

2003–: Professor of Molecular Biology and Nanoscience,
Aarhus University

1990–1992: Postdoctoral fellow, laboratory of Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA; USA

1989–1990: Postdoctoral fellow, laboratory of Cox Terhorst,
Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA

1989: PhD in biostructural chemistry,
Aarhus University

1986:MSc in biostructural chemistry,
Aarhus University


The Novo Nordisk Prize was first awarded in 1963 and is given to recognize unique medical research or other research contributions that benefit medical science. The Prize is awarded for a predominantly Danish contribution. The Novo Nordisk Prize Committee under the Novo Nordisk Foundation awards the Prize.

The Prize is awarded annually and is accompanied by DKK 3 million – of which DKK 2.5 million is available for research purposes within the Prize recipient’s research field and DKK 500,000 is a personal award.


Jørgen Kjems, phone: +45 2899 2086, [email protected]

Christian Mostrup Scheel, Senior Press Officer,
Novo Nordisk Foundation, phone: +45 3067 4805, [email protected]