Published: 25-09-2017 15:10 | Updated: 25-09-2017 16:43

Jonas Frisén awarded major prize

Professor Jonas Frisén at Karolinska Institutet has been awarded the 2017 Eric K. Fernström Foundation Grand Nordic Prize of SEK 1 million in recognition of his research on how stem cells are transformed and renewed in adult organs.

Jonas FrisénJonas Frisén, professor at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Karolinska Institutet, is an internationally renowned scientist and stem cell researcher who is interested in the formation of new stem cells, which are able to develop into specialised cells. Professor Frisén has concentrated mostly on the formation of new nerve cells, but has also conducted researches on the heart and cancer. Knowledge of stem cells is important to cancer, which often arises in stem cells, and to diseases caused by cell loss, such as Alzheimer’s.

“I was surprised and overwhelmed when the prize committee called,” says Jonas Frisén in a press release from Lund University.

Developed his own method of age-determining cells

His interest in stem cells was born at a decisive moment in 1993 when he discovered something unexpected while looking at microscopic images of the rat spinal cord. The images were of a healthy and an injured cord, and he could see that while in the former the stem cells were inactive, in the latter they had been activated and had started to form new cells, seemingly around the precise area of damage. The discovery was revolutionary and made Professor Frisén drop all other lines of research.

To find out if new nerve cells can be formed in an adult human, he has developed his own method of age-determining cells, inspired by the archaeological technique of carbon dating.

“We made use of the nuclear tests that took place during the Cold War,” he explains. “Put simply, they put an enormous amount of radioactive matter into the atmosphere, which the cells absorbed. We then used this knowledge to date the neurons.”

Reckless, curious and fearless

What Professor Frisén loves about research is finding clever solutions, and he believes that a large dose of curiosity and fearlessness have contributed to his scientific success.

“I guess I can be a little reckless,” he says. “I’m driven by the question – if there’s no way of answering it, I just have to find new ways. Using the nuclear tests was a long shot that no one else had tried. It sounded fun in theory but we had to learn a whole lot of new things to make it work in practice.”

Jonas Frisén’s research group has shown that neuron formation in humans differs dramatically from other mammals. He has also studied new cell formation in the heart and demonstrated how we slowly replace our heart muscle cells.

Every year, the Eric K. Fernström Foundation awards a Nordic prize to a medical researcher from one of the Nordic countries, and local prizes to junior researchers at medical faculties in Sweden. The Nordic Prize is worth SEK 1 million. The awards ceremony marks the end of the Science Day event in Lund, which this year is on 8 November. The Lund University medical faculty has been in partnership with the foundation since 1978, when honorary doctor of medicine Eric K Fernström made his endowment that first formed the Eric K. Fernström Foundation.

This article is based on a press release from Lund University.