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Prof. Molly Stevens receives the Novo Nordisk Prize – Understanding how materials and biology interact has revolutionised healthcare technologies

Photo: David Vintiner

Science of small things does not sound like something that can have a big impact on the world, but nanotechnology has proved this is wrong. Tissue engineering, efficient drug delivery and more sensitive screening for diseases are just a few examples. According to Professor Molly Stevens, the new technologies can democratise access to healthcare. She is now receiving the 2023 Novo Nordisk Prize for her pioneering work in innovative bioengineering approaches to pursue the vision of solving key problems in regenerative medicine and biosensing.

Medicine focuses on preventing, monitoring, predicting, diagnosing and, of course, treating and curing diseases. Whereas most medical research disciplines have traditionally belonged to one or a few of the categories, nanomedicine transcends all, from extraordinary sensitive diagnostic devices to pharmaceutical drug delivery formulations such as in the COVID-19 vaccines.

The interaction between disciplines to solve key scientific challenges has been characteristic for the career of Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine Molly Stevens, who leads an internationally recognised team based at Imperial College London as well as a satellite group at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. Her team’s pioneering work spans bone tissue engineering, sensors for cancer diagnosis and delivery systems for drugs.

“The exploration of the interface between materials and biology has always been at the centre of my research. And how you – by understanding it – can design and then apply it in so many different ways. Whether it is regenerative medicine, amplification of biosensing signals or the way that nanoparticles target and deliver cargoes, the interface between living and non-living matter has always been the central theme throughout my career,” explains Molly Stevens.

For her outstanding contributions, Molly Stevens is now being awarded the 2023 Novo Nordisk Prize. The Prize is being awarded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and honours active scientists who have made outstanding contributions to advance medical science to benefit people’s lives. The Prize is accompanied by DKK 5 million.

Jørgen Frøkiær, Chair of the Novo Nordisk Prize Committee, says: “Molly Stevens has made pioneering discoveries in bioengineering to develop innovative materials-based solutions across regenerative medicine, biosensing and therapeutics. She focuses on difficult problems that, if successfully addressed, will have great clinical impact. Her legacy already comprises a great number of students and researchers who have benefitted from her guidance and who have achieved independent faculty positions at highly reputed universities, been appointed by industry or become entrepreneurs by establishing spin-out companies.”

Molly Stevens says: “Imagine a world where diseases such as cancer, malaria and heart failure could be detected as simply, quickly and cheaply as pregnancy is today. We are harnessing the power of nanomaterials to make this dream a reality. This work is inherently interdisciplinary, and I would like to thank my team and colleagues – a diverse cast of materials scientists, engineers, chemists, biologists, physicists and surgeons. Everything we have achieved is a result of this fantastic team-based effort.”

Molly Stevens graduated in Pharmacy from the University of Bath in 1995. She then received a PhD from the University of Nottingham in 2001 for using atomic force microscopy to investigate single-molecule biophysics. Towards the end of her PhD, Molly attended a conference at which she incidentally noticed a striking picture of a little boy with liver disease.

“I went in, and Robert Langer was giving a talk. His talk had a strong imprint on me. I knew I was going to do a postdoc, but I had not settled on a specific research area yet. I thought it was amazing to see that you could start science from great scientific principles and that you could then develop and apply it to help people. It opened my eyes to a different field with which I was not as familiar. I knew that I wanted to do a postdoc within his team. And thankfully, he took me in.”

Molly’s time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was highly productive, leading to the co-invention with her colleagues of a new approach termed the in vivo bioreactor, capable of regenerating huge amounts of new bone.

This first foray into the world of regenerative medicine has been followed by many important and different innovations in Molly’s own lab, and her work has been recognised by more than 20 major prizes, including the 2021 FEBS|EMBO Women in Science Award. She also leads the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform Smart Materials Hub across the United Kingdom, creating a vibrant framework to catalyse the translation of regenerative medicine products to clinical practice.

More broadly, the team of Molly Stevens has also been successful in myriad innovative bioengineering approaches to pursue its vision of solving key problems in ultrasensitive biosensing and advanced therapeutics. This translational theme throughout Molly’s research, which has led to several spin-out companies, is built on outstanding fundamental and cross-disciplinary science and a strong desire to benefit society.

“Developing technologies that could positively impact healthcare continues to drive my research, and bringing it from the lab to the point of need is critical in my view. I am a passionate advocate for the democratisation of medicine and access to healthcare for all. Translating research outcomes that will reach those most in need has been and will continue to be a core focus of my research.”

Molly Stevens will officially receive the Novo Nordisk Prize at a prize ceremony in Bagsværd, Denmark on 21 April.

About Molly Stevens

  • 1995 BPharm, Pharmacy, University of Bath
  • 2001 PhD, single-molecule biophysics, University of Nottingham
  • 2001–2003 Postdoctoral Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • 2008 Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine, Imperial College London
  • 2019 Foreign member of the National Academy of Engineering (United States)
  • 2020 Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)

About the Novo Nordisk Prize

The Novo Nordisk Prize recognises active scientists who have provided outstanding international contributions to advance medical science to benefit people’s lives.

The Prize is awarded annually by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and is intended to further support biomedical research in Europe.

The Prize is accompanied by DKK 5 million (€672,000) and comprises a DKK 4.5 million (€605,000) research grant and a personal award of DKK 0.5 million (€67,000).

The Foundation will award an additional DKK 0.5 million for hosting an international symposium within the recipient’s field(s) of research.

Further information

Professor Molly Stevens:

Novo Nordisk Foundation: Christian Mostrup, Senior Lead, Corporate Affairs, +45 3067 4805, [email protected]