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University of Copenhagen Opens Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research

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This story originally ran on June 10 and has been updated.

The University of Copenhagen has officially opened the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, which was created from the largest donation ever awarded to a Danish university for basic scientific research.

The facility opened last week is in the process of being equipped, officials at the university told ProteoMonitor this week. Research is expected to begin during the summer and will focus both on basic protein research and studies into the role that proteins play in disease progression.

Housed in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the university, the center occupies roughly 12,000 square feet on three floors. The first floor houses the center's core facility, which will do work in protein expression and characterization, chemical biology, and protein therapeutics.

Proteomics work will be done on the second floor, which also houses the bioinformatics and systems-biology operations. The third floor is devoted to studies in disease biology and mechanism.

The center is the result of a grant totaling potentially DKK 600 million ($113 million) over 10 years awarded in 2007 by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. Currently manned by about 40 people, it will have a staff of about 150 when it begins research.

It will eventually be equipped with at least nine mass spectrometers, liquid chromatographs, and various instruments used for protein expression and characterization. It has ordered two LTQ Orbitrap Velos from Thermo Fisher Scientific and plans to buy seven more mass specs: At least five will be installed in the proteomics lab, and two will be placed in the core facility, said Michael Sundstrom, managing director of the center, though a final decision on the platforms have not yet been made.

Thermo Fisher launched the Velos last week at the American Society for Mass Spectrometry annual conference.

The proteomics work will be headed by Matthias Mann, who will also continue to work at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry where he is a professor and center director in the department of proteomics and signal transduction.

In an e-mail, he told ProteoMonitor that his role at the center will be to "advise the three independent proteomics groups at the center and to help set overall directions."

In addition, Søren Brunak, also at the Technical University of Denmark, will direct computational and bioinformatics work at the center. Two other director positions remain open, though Sundstrom declined to identify the research areas they will encompass because he and other officials are still deciding on them.

However, he suggested they will be "oriented [toward] more functional validation of proteins in disease conditions. Those profiles are more toward cell biological studies, and what's in pharmaceuticals: this whole target validation [and] validation."

In addition, Niels Mailand, from the Danish Cancer Society, and Amilcar Flores Morales from the Karolinska Institute, have been named to head the center's work in disease biology.

'Good Grip'

The center's focus will be both on basic protein research and studies into the role that proteins play in disease progression, Sundstrom said. The center was created specifically to bring protein research into the medical field, but in order to do that "you need to have a good grip over discovery science, early science," he said.

"As a community, we're facing great challenges in terms of looking at the productivity of the pharmaceutical industry, the biotech industry," and one of the goals of the center will be investigating ways to fortify drug-development pipelines by improving the efficacy of drug candidates, he added.

"One of the missions we have is to generate very good scientific data which [would] allow us to make better rational hypotheses on how we can develop drugs," said Sundstrom. "In order to do that, we really need to understand the protein components more properly, because I think we're just starting to scratch the surface in terms of the protein complexity."

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Ulla Wewer, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, added that that research will be directed at diseases such as cancer, metabolic syndromes, and lifestyle-associated diseases. It will also focus on how disease pathways can be described and modulated by, for example, "protein modification, protein phosphorylation, protein ubiquitination — and how that can be applied to understanding disease biology, and how that can be used to formulate new concepts for therapeutics."

The center will not be developing new protein-based therapeutics. "That's going to be done, of course, by medical companies," she said. The center's principal task — "the pre-competitive conceptualizing and developing new avenues [for treating] diseases — is something that's important."

Novo Nordisk is awarding its grant in two phases: About 60 percent of the DKK 600 million total will be dispersed between 2007 and 2012, at which time the center and its work will be reviewed by the Novo Nordisk Foundation. If satisfied, it will disperse the balance over the ensuing five years.

It is unclear what would happen to the center if the foundation is dissatisfied with its review. Wewer said, however, that most grants have reviews and are a "formality."

In the two years since the initial funding portion was dispersed, most of the work has been spent renovating space at the university housing the center. The total cost of the renovation was €15 million ($21 million) and paid for by the university, Wewer said.

At the time the grant was announced, both the foundation and the University of Copenhagen called it the largest ever to a university in Denmark to support basic scientific research, and came at a time when government funding for scientific projects was not so much as flowing as seeping.

According to Wewer, one reason for the grant was the Novo Nordisk Foundation wanted to keep the tradition of protein research alive in the Copenhagen region. Insulin was first commercially produced in Copenhagen, and the drug firm Novo Nordisk is based in Bagsvaerd, about 7.5 miles outside of Copenhagen. There is also a "strong academic tradition" in protein research at the university, she said.

The foundation chose to fund research in proteomics and protein research after discussions with the research community convinced it that that was the next frontier in medicine. With serious large-scale proteomics projects underway in Sweden and Germany, Gert Almind, the CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, told ProteoMonitor at the time that he wanted to bring Denmark up to the same level as its neighbors, and possibly become part of a regional fountainhead of protein research [see PM 05/10/07].

"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," Almind said in 2007. The center "will host some of the groups, and at the same time be part of a Nordic network covering the whole spectrum."

In line with that, Sundstrom this week said that though the center is still not completely functional, and its operations have been scattered among 10 separate sites until a week ago, it has been engaged in ongoing collaborations with other European and US groups.

These include the Scripps Research Institute and the University of Oxford, with which the center is developing a third-generation research database system; the Structural Genomics Consortium at the Karolinska Institute, with which the center plans to co-develop high-throughput methods for protein production; and a project with Matthias Mann's group at Max Planck using phosphoproteomics to investigate the cell cycle.

In addition to research, the facility will be used as a teaching resource on the undergraduate and graduate level. A visiting scientists program may also be established.

"This is a protein center on the global scene," Wewer said.

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