In what is being touted as the largest award ever given to an academic institution in Denmark for basic scientific research, the University of Copenhagen has received KRO 600 million [$109 million] from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to create a protein research center.
The grant, announced last week, is to be allocated over 10 years, and the 4,000-square-meter [43,000-square-foot] facility will be situated at the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences. The space will be renovated over the next few months, and then equipped with new instruments and tools. Because it is early in the process, no decisions have been made about the equipment the center will have, but at the least, it will have mass spectrometers, and liquid chromatographers and columns, said Ulla Wewer, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the university.
The center, to be called the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, is expected to be up and running in late 2008. When fully operational, it will have about 100 employees.
The university and the foundation said that the donation is the largest ever awarded to a Danish university for basic scientific research. As academic institutions throughout Denmark cope with a paucity of government funding for scientific work, the Novo Nordisk award funds the creation of a center that otherwise might not be possible.
“The way this center is [being set up] is there will be a core facility for engineering and generating expression and purification of proteins that can be used for structural and functional analysis,” Wewer told ProteoMonitor last week. In addition, the center will serve as a major research facility, guided by five research directors each with expertise in different subject areas.
“The beauty of it is that we will have this center located right in the middle of the academic environment so that researchers [in the different departments and disciplines] can all take advantage of this center, so that it becomes a strengthening of the whole research in the area,” Wewer said.
The university first approached the Novo Nordisk Foundation with the idea of creating a center dedicated to protein research at about the same time that the foundation had made the decision to make a donation to a field of scientific research. In conversations with the scientific community, executive members of the foundation discovered that protein research was viewed by many as the next frontier in medicine, said Gert Almind, CEO of the foundation, which is separate from the drug firm Novo Nordisk.
With serious work in proteomics and protein research already being done in Denmark’s neighbor to the north, Sweden, and south, Germany, the creation of the center was a way to try to bring Denmark to the same level, Almind said.
But, he added, “We want to see the research groups in Sweden and Denmark as part of a protein 'chain' of competencies, from gene cloning and gene engineering, via recombinant expression and engineering, to formulation and administration. The center in Copenhagen will host some of the groups, and at the same time be part of a Nordic network covering the whole spectrum.”
The foundation eventually agreed to locate the center at the University of Copenhagen because “we were looking for a university with good research inside the area already, and [which had the] capacity to handle the size of the new center,” Almind said.
During the coming months, university administrators will set the research agenda for the center.
“We want to do basic research looking into signaling cascades, all sorts of kinases, all kinds of phosphatases and signaling pathways involved in this,” Wewer said. “And of course, there will be a few people in there devoted to thinking about how proteins can be used as targeting reagents for inhibiting pathways.”
As the university currently negotiates with a candidate to become the center’s managing director, two of the five research directors have been named — Matthias Mann, currently at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, and Søren Brunak at the Technical University of Denmark. Both will continue to work at those institutions and work at the Novo Nordisk center part-time.
Mann’s group will do proteomics research with a medical angle, he told ProteoMonitor this week. At Max Planck much of his work has focused on cell signaling and cell models. At the Novo Nordisk center, he will work more directly with clinicians in disease areas such as cancer and metabolic syndromes in diabetes and obesity, and apply proteomic methods and technologies in the study of embryonic stem cells, he said.
“It’s a whole different world if you want to get closer to the patients. We would probably not do it [at Max Planck], not because we couldn’t do it, [but] we would get too distracted,” he said.
Brunak’s group will comprise the computational component of the center, combining bioinformatics with systems biology to build models of new disease genes and disease protein complexes, he told ProteoMonitor this week.
Areas of expertise for the remaining three research directors have not been identified yet, but it’s anticipated that they will be biomedically oriented with a strong focus on mechanisms of disease, Wewer said.
Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Funding
In addition to accelerating protein and proteomics research at the university, on a larger scale the center is expected to bolster research in those fields in Denmark, where a lack of government funding has seriously held back research in the field, scientists said.
“The idea of the center is that it should not be indigenous [only to the university], but that the core facility should serve a role in the local environment in Denmark and Sweden.”
In 2002, the so-called Barcelona Agreement set a goal for countries belonging to the European Union to increase scientific R&D spending to up to 3 percent of a country’s gross domestic product by 2010, with 2 percent of that to be supplied by industry, and 1 percent by government.
According to a 2005 study by the Danish National Research Foundation, however, between 1993 and 2003, the amount of funding by the Danish government has consistently been at or slightly below 0.8 percent of the country’s GDP. By comparison, funding by the private sector rose from about 1 percent to 1.8 percent of Denmark’s GDP between 1993 and 2003.
The level of government funding since the report was issued is unclear, but scientists say public funding for research remains scarce. The government has vowed to boost funding for scientific research, but the years of under-funding have already done their damage, said Ole Nørregaard Jensen, chairman of the Danish Proteomics Society and a professor of protein mass spectrometry at the University of Southern Denmark, which has been the crux of proteomics research in the country.
Researchers may have run out of money, he said and “in the meantime, there’s a big hole, and they have lost a lot of people and have old equipment, and then maybe it’s too late now to catch up.”
The foundation was not unaware of the funding dilemma faced by academic researchers when it made its donation. “It is certain that the government never would have shown up with a sufficient amount to create a protein center or another donation amount like [the foundation],” said CEO Almind.
Brunak said that the center’s core facility will be of special importance.
“We have nothing like that in Denmark, where essentially you can come with a piece of DNA and walk away with so-and-so much protein,” he said. “The idea of the center is that it should not be indigenous [only to the university], but that the core facility should serve a role in the local environment in Denmark and Sweden.
“So I think it will boost a lot of other people’s research,” Brunak said.
In addition to spurring on research in the immediate future, Almind said that he hopes the center will stir up interest in protein and proteomics research in the next generation of scientists.
“We would like this donation to do something to really change things,” he said.