Published: 12-04-2016 13:14 | Updated: 13-04-2016 14:17

Wallenberg grants to three leading researchers at Karolinska Institutet

Two prominent clinical researchers at Karolinska Institutet have been appointed Wallenberg Clinical Scholars 2016. The individual funding of SEK 15 million from Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation provides Miia Kivipelto and Per Svenningsson with the opportunity to deepen their research and disseminate their results in healthcare. In addition, Patrik Ernfors receives a second grant of SEK 15 million within the Wallenberg Scholar programme, to support leading researchers at Swedish universities.

Miia Kivipelto, Professor of Clinical Geriatric Epidemiology at the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society has made significant contributions to insights into how the development of dementia can be slowed down through the use of lifestyle measures. As a Wallenberg Clinical Scholar she will continue to investigate how best to prevent the disease. Among other things, she will develop a platform for high-quality clinical studies of dementia. Her work also includes developing models for assessing a person’s risk of dementia, investigating which mechanisms drive the disease and how these can be counteracted through a range of measures.

Globally, the frequency of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is rapidly increasing. In recent decades, a great deal of resources have been put in to developing pharmaceuticals that can prevent the progress of the disease, but this has turned out to be easier said than done. As yet there is no drugs that can prevent the development of dementia. However, Miia Kivipelto, has shown that it is possible to decrease memory problems with a number of measures: changed diet, physical training, cognitive training and normalising blood pressure and blood lipids.

Per Svenningsson, Professor in Neurology at the the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, studies proteins that are central to the development of Parkinson’s disease and investigates pharmaceuticals that may potentially protect brain cells from damage. Every year, around 2,000 Swedes are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, in which the brain’s dopamine-producing cells are destroyed. Those affected lose the ability to control their movements; their muscles become stiff and often start to shake involuntarily. Many patients are also affected mentally. There are pharmaceuticals that can lessen the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but there are no treatments that can slow its degenerative progress.

Wallenberg Clinical Scholar Per Svenningsson aims to develop treatments that can provide protection from the destructive forces that break down the cells in the brain. The focus of the project is a protein called glucocerebrosidase, which appears to interact with another protein found in the abnormal deposits, Lewy bodies, which form in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease.

Mutations in the gene for glucocerebrosidase lead to a 10-15-fold greater risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Among other things, Per Svenningson is studying a substance, SapC, that appears to boost the protective effect of glucocerebrosidase. One of several aims is to produce a pharmaceutical that can imitate SapC and that will hopefully help everyone affected by the disease.

Patrik Ernfors, Professor of Molecular Neurodevelopment at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics, was appointed a Wallenberg Scholar in 2010 for his research about the mechanisms behind cell division of stem cells, and the possible ability of the brain to heal itself. Now, that he has received five years of further funding from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Fundation, he aims to find new ways of treating Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most common and also most aggressive and lethal of all brain tumors. Research over the past decades have provided extensive knowledge on cellular processes of growth factor signaling, apoptosis, autophagy, senescence, cell cycle control, DNA repair which have been instrumental for understanding physiology as well as cancer biology. The identification of such core “driver” pathways in tumor formation has steered drug development to targeted therapies.

Despite intense research targeted therapies currently does not exist or work for all cancers. So instead of “correcting errors” causing the cancer, as in most targeted therapies, Patrik Ernfors and his research group will take an entirely new strategy by hypothesizing that the marked cellular changes in cancer cells may lead to acquired vulnerabilities. The idea is simply that acquired vulnerabilities associated with cell transformation can be exploited for development of new therapeutic strategies. The proposal combines highly innovative and systematic approaches to identify the hierarchical cell organization in glioblastoma tumors, gene-regulatory networks governing the different cell states and finally the identification of selective vulnerability of tumor initiating cells.

About the research funder

The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation (KAW) is one of the largest private financiers of research in Europe. The Foundation grants currently the total of SEK 1.7 billion per year for various projects, mainly at Swedish Universities. KAW grants funding in two main areas; research projects of high scientific potential and individual support of excellent scientists. The funding goes mainly to research within the natural sciences, technology and medicine. The Wallenberg Clinical Scholars programme is managed in collaboration with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (KVA).