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Aarhus University and industry start five open research projects to pave the way for new pharmaceuticals

Kidney diseases, atherosclerosis, colon cancer, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and neurological disorders are five global health problems that the first five research projects in the Open Discovery Innovation Network (ODIN) are now addressing. In the projects, researchers from Aarhus University and the pharmaceutical industry are working together in full openness to generate new knowledge and new tools that can be used to develop new drugs.

Since the Novo Nordisk Foundation granted DKK 54.5 million to the ODIN pilot project in February 2020, researchers from 36 Danish and international pharmaceutical and biotech companies have been networking with each other and researchers from three faculties at Aarhus University to develop ideas for new research projects.

The five research projects have been selected from among 19 project proposals, which in turn emerged from 39 ideas from the first round of matchmaking events (mostly online) arranged through ODIN in the spring.

The second call round is now open.

A fundamental requirement for these research projects is that they generate broad value – i.e., benefit more than just the individual company – and that the results are shared with the public. To get through the eye of the needle, the projects must first pass through a project assessment committee, then an international panel of experts, and then finally ODIN's steering committee, who choose the most promising projects.

Please watch the short presentation of ODIN and the five projects in the video below.

The five projects, receiving total funding of almost DKK 22 million, are:

Open discovery of metabolic targets for therapeutic intervention in kidney disease

The overarching aim is to identify metabolites that predict kidney cell phenotypes during chronic kidney disease, and investigate how crosstalk between metabolites and the proteome worsens the disease.

Chronic kidney disease, a progressive disease that can eventually lead to kidney failure, is also associated to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. As such, chronic kidney disease remains a major global health and socioeconomic burden. Chronic kidney disease increases cardiovascular morbidity and premature mortality and it decreases patients’ quality of life. Although approximately 1 in 4 people will develop chronic kidney disease during their lifetime, research activity in this area has only recently gained momentum. Thus, there is an urgent need for new approaches for early identification of the individuals most “at risk” and to identify signatures of the disease to aid in designing novel drugs and preventive measures.



  • Professor Robert Fenton, Department of Biomedicine
  • Associate Professor Markus Rinschen, Department of Biomedicine
  • Associate Professor Ken Howard, iNANO/Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Professor Ira Assent, Department of Computer Science
  • Professor Pernille Lærkegaard Hansen, AstraZeneca AB
  • Anna Björnson Granqvist, AstraZeneca AB

Targeting smooth muscle cells for atherosclerosis therapy    

The aim is to provide improved basic knowledge about the biology of smooth muscle cells and about the genes that control smooth muscle cell development. This knowledge can be exploited for drug development to treat atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases.

These diseases include heart attacks, ischemic strokes and ischemia in the legs, and it is the leading cause of death and disability in the world. Drugs that can lower the causal risk factors for atherosclerosis (e.g., to treat high cholesterol and blood pressure) are already available, but people are still struck by the disease, and further potentials for risk factor reduction are close to being exhausted. It is therefore timely to look beyond risk factor reduction and identify key disease mechanisms that can be targeted by drugs working orthogonally to existing therapies. Vascular smooth muscle cells are promising targets for such substances.



  • Professor Jacob Fog Bentzon, Department of Clinical Medicine
  • Associate Professor Mette Nyegaard, Department of Biomedicine
  • Michael Nyberg, Novo Nordisk A/S

Identification of novel biomarkers and drug targets for the detection and elimination of occult (hidden) metastases in colon cancer    

The project aims to use a new state-of-the-art approach, digital spatial profiling (DSP), to characterize the molecular evolution of cancer sub-clones in tumours and metastatic sites. The highly detailed data will advance our understanding of the metastatic process and make it possible to identify and validate new biomarkers and drug targets and ultimately pave the way for new treatments with fewer side effects for patients diagnosed with colon cancer.

Due to an aging population and better screening programmes, more and more cancer patients are diagnosed at an earlier disease stage. In the attempt to remove the cancer, the primary tumour is usually surgically removed, optionally with adjuvant (post-operative) treatment such as chemotherapy to remove potentially occult (hidden) micrometastases. Although adjuvant chemotherapy does significantly reduce recurrence in patients post-surgery, overall in approximately 30% of patients the cancer still recurs. Furthermore, it is difficult to identify patients who will benefit from such treatment, because it is not possible to find the rare metastasis-activated sub-clones within primary tumours using existing techniques. Therefore, a relatively large proportion of colon cancer patients experience a relapse and die despite intensive treatment.



  • Associate Professor Lasse Sommer Kristensen, Department of Biomedicine
  • Associate Professor Thomas Mailund, Bioinformatics Research Centre (BiRC)
  • Ultan McDermott, AstraZeneca PLC
  • Morten Venø, Omiics ApS,
  • Mogens Kruhøffer, BioXpedia A/S
  • Rudy Van Eijsden, NanoString Technologies, Inc.

Identifying biomarkers for diagnosis and treatment evaluation of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease 

The core aim of this project is to identify novel biomarkers in blood from NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) and NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis) patients using a technology based on an entirely new approach named APTASHAPE, which enables an unbiased and high throughput method for identifying alterations in protein composition in the blood during onset, development and treatment of disease. 

Currently, liver biopsy is the only reliable diagnostic approach for patients with NAFLD and NASH. It is an invasive and potentially dangerous procedure for the patients due to the risk of bleeding. Thus, a large unmet clinical need exists for new blood biomarkers to diagnose and stage patients with NAFLD and NASH, and for monitoring treatment response.



  • Professor Jørgen Kjems, iNANO/Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Professor Henning Grønbæk, Department of Clinical Medicine
  • Associate Professor Christian Bjerggaard Vægter, Department of Biomedicine
  • Natasha Barascuk Michaelsen, Novo Nordisk A/S


A human-stem-cell-based miniaturised controlled organoid (MiCO) platform for investigating neurological disorders 

The goal of this project is to develop a robust human-stem-cell-based neurobiological model platform, which uses miniaturised controlled neural organoids (MiCOs) from the three primary central nervous system regions. MiCOs are combined with multi-electrode array (MEA) and single-cell RNA sequencing for functional and bioinformatic transcriptional evaluation. This will potentially result in a very reproducible human platform that can be used to validate drugs to treat neurological disorders.

Traditionally, animal models have been used to identify and test drug graduates to treat neurological disorders. However, a disproportionate number of the substances discovered and validated in animal experiments fail to translate to humans. A more advanced system of models, which includes a diversity of human cells to recapitulate tissue from the central nervous system and uses the patient's genetic background, is required to more accurately model the causes of human diseases.


  • Associate Professor Mark Denham, DANDRITE, Department of Biomedicine
  • Professor Daniel Otzen, iNANO/Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Jonathan Niclis, Novo Nordisk A/S
  • Morten Venø, Omiics ApS

For further information 

Please visit ODIN's home page 


Marie Louise Conradsen
PhD, Head of Open Science
Mail: mlco@au.dk
Mobile: (+45) 9350 8496

Robert Fenton
Professor, Department of Biomedicine
Mail: robert.a.fenton@biomed.au.dk
Mobile: (+45) 2899 2149

Jacob Fog Bentzon
Professor, Department of Clinical Medicine
Mail: jfbentzon@clin.au.dk
Mobile: (+45) 9352 1562

Lasse Sommer Kristensen
Associate Professor, Department of Biomedicine
Mail: lasse@biomed.au.dk
Mobil: (+45) 2888 0562 

Jørgen Kjems
Professor, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Mail: jk@mbg.au.dk
Mobile: (+45) 2899 2086

Mark Denham
Associate Professor, DANDRITE, Department of Biomedicine
Mail: mden@dandrite.au.dk
Mobil: (+45) 2398 2078