Published: 26-03-2024 10:05 | Updated: 28-03-2024 09:27

Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation awards Scholar grants to 19 KI researchers

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Photo: Getty Images.

The Wallenberg Scholars program aims to provide leading researchers in Sweden with grants for free research. Following a comprehensive international peer review, the Foundation has chosen to fund 118 researchers for five years, providing up to SEK 18 million each for researchers in theoretical subjects and up to SEK 20 million each for researchers in experimental subjects. Of the 29 medical researchers awarded this year's Scholar grants, 19 are active at Karolinska Institutet.

The Wallenberg Scholars Program is aimed at senior researchers and is one of two programs for free research, or basic research, funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. 

The foundation is now appointing 19 KI researchers as Wallenberg Scholars. Of these, nine researchers receive extended support, while ten researchers are newly appointed scholars.

Peter Wallenberg Jr.
Peter Wallenberg Jr. Photo: Magnus Bergström.

"Our goal is to provide outstanding researchers in Sweden with unrestricted funds where they themselves choose what to research. We hope this enables daring and groundbreaking research," says Peter Wallenberg Jr, chair of Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, in a press release.

Basic research is typically defined as a systematic and methodical curiosity-driven search for new knowledge and ideas without immediate application in mind. Piece by piece, new knowledge is slowly but surely added. 

500 peer reviews 

Although the primary purpose is not to find applications, basic research has often led to significant and important discoveries resulting in just that. 

But it also involves developing methods, conducting advanced calculations, and developing technology to interpret and process all collected data.

In the evaluation of applications for Wallenberg Scholars, close to 500 international expert peer reviews have been gathered. Each application has been reviewed by four to five international experts.

"It is satisfying that 40 percent of the Wallenberg Scholars in this round are women. This is the result of a deliberate effort on the part of the Foundation to have universities nominate more women,"notes Peter Wallenberg Jr. "But it is important to emphasize that they have been appointed on their merits. All applications are competitive, and the evaluation process only considers scientific merits." 

During the period 2009–2023, the Foundation granted SEK 1.8 billion to the Wallenberg Scholars program. Together with the new round, the initiative amounts to SEK 3.9 billion.

New Wallenberg Scholars at KI

Gonçalo Castelo-Branco, professor of glial cell biology at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Professor Castelo-Branco will continue his efforts to find better diagnostic methods and develop new therapies for MS, using new molecular technology.

Petter Brodin, professor of immunology at the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Professor Brodin intends to study why the workings of the immune system are so individual. Some people develop immune-mediated disorders such as allergies or autoimmune diseases, are more sensitive to infection or respond worse to vaccines than others. Petter Brodin’s research group studies how such differences are shaped early in life by environmental factors.

Qiang Pan Hammarström, professor of clinical immunology at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Professor Pan Hammarström wants to increase knowledge of the complex molecular mechanisms involved in the production of immunoglobulins (antibodies against bacterial infections) by B cells. One additional aim is to identify what causes the transformation of B cells into lymphoid cancer (lymphoma).

Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam, professor of vaccine immunology at the Department of Microbiology, Tumour and Cell Biology. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Professor Karlsson Hedestam will be studying the human immune system, especially B and T cell receptors, to increase our knowledge about hereditary factors behind certain autoimmune diseases. 

Thomas Helleday, professor of chemical biology at the Department of Oncology-Pathology. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Professor Helleday hopes to develop a new type of therapeutic method for treating diseases and ageing. His aim is to produce more efficacious drugs through the development of new, biochemical treatment methods.

Sten Eirik W. Jacobsen, professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the Department of Medicine, Huddinge, and Department of Cell and Molecular Biology. Professor Jacobsen and his research group recently identified a new type of blood stem cells dedicated to production of blood platelets. As a Wallenberg Scholar, he intends to understand the mechanisms regulating platelet formation from stem cells towards the goal of applying the knowledge to clinical treatments such as chemotherapy, in which the number of platelets falls dramatically.

Jens Hjerling Leffler, docent of neuroscience at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Dr Hjerling Leffler will be studying how small changes in a large number of genes contribute to the development of the hereditary disease schizophrenia, and the biologic mechanisms affect by these changes.

Rickard Sandberg, professor of molecular genetics at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Professor Sandberg intends to examine how the proteins used by brain cells when communicating with each other – synapse proteins – affect brain function. His aim is to learn more about the development of neurodegenerative and psychiatric diseases.

Kirsty Spalding, professor of adipocyte biology at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Professor Spalding hopes to develop new and more effective cancer therapies by studying how fat cells affect tumour growth. 

Juleen Zierath, professor of clinical integrative physiology at the Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Professor Zierath will be studying in detail how physical activity and a high calorie diet affect cellular circadian clocks to improve metabolism in type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Wallenberg Scholars at KI who receive renewed support  

Patrik Ernfors, professor of tissue biology at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics
About the research: Tracing the origin of tumors to find a cure for brain cancer

Jonas Frisén, professor of stem cell research at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology.
About the research: Research into formation of new neurons may prolong life

Nils-Göran Larsson, professor of mitochondrial genetics at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics.
About the research: The role played by mitochondria in disease

Ernest Arenas, professor of molecular neurobiology at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics
About the research: Programming brain cells – a new move in the battle against Parkinson's 

Joanna Rorbach, associate professor of molecular biology at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics
About the research: Protein manufacture in the cell powerhouse

Sten Linnarsson, professor of molecular systems biology at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics
About the research: How the brain is built

Randall Johnson, professor of molecular physiology and pathology at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology
About the research: Controlling the immune system to improve cancer therapies

Marie Carlén, professor of neuronal networks at the Department of Neuroscience.
About the research: Learning more about the brain

Camilla Svensson, professor of cellular and molecular pain physiology at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.
About the research: Turning the spotlight on chronic pain

Background on Wallenberg Scholars 

The Wallenberg Scholars program was initiated in 2009 with the goal of providing some of Sweden's best researchers with a larger grant that can be freely used for research for five years with no restrictions. 

The idea was to provide leading researchers with the freedom and resources to motivate them to stay in Sweden.