DANDRITE through 10 years: Making history with the future of Neuroscience

This month DANDRITE celebrates 10 years of existence. With a new generation of highly talented group leaders already recruited, the research center is ready to embark on a new decade.

Photo: Lise Balsby, AU Photo

“Our ambition is to be the first with the latest ideas.”

These promising words from professor and director Poul Nissen framed the inauguration of a new Danish research center in Neuroscience that took place back in March 2013 at Aarhus University.

“It was very festive,” Poul Nissen remembers.

“This was not “just” a new AU initiative, but also the marking of a new and greater international co-operation,” he explains.

As the Danish node of the Nordic EMBL Partnership in Molecular Medicine and long-term funded by the Lundbeck Foundation, the research center represented a new way of building and developing prospective research programs and environments within the field of neuroscience.

The name DANDRITE - a playful paraphrasing of the branches of nerve cells, “dendrites” - supported the new center’s Danish anchoring in the international neuroscience community and applications.

“The aim was to establish new research areas and approaches at Aarhus University with significant impact on neuroscience and to recruit excellent young research talents who could expand the boundaries of what we know and how we perform science,” Poul Nissen explains.    

DANDRITE is a game-changer
This month DANDRITE celebrates its 10th anniversary. A perfect time to take stock of the achievements throughout the last decade. Have the ambitions set out in 2013 been fulfilled?
Director Poul Nissen has no doubt:

"Very clearly, yes. We established new expertise for stem cell research and circuit neuroscience, and we have contributed to numerous infrastructure developments, which have developed the life science and biotechnology fields in general,” he explains.

Besides the core funding from the Lundbeck Foundation, numerous external grants have contributed to a thriving community with many international students, postdocs, and collaborations. The number of peer-reviewed publications from DANDRITE is exceeding 300 – numerous of them in top-tier journals. Behind the sheer number, many new and fundamental mechanisms of the brain have been revealed at a detailed level and related to molecular mechanisms, sensory functions, and behavior such as vision, decision-making, reproduction, and memory, as well as the development, and degeneration of the neurons.  

According to Jens Christian Hedemann Sørensen, clinical professor at Aarhus University Hospital and Chair of the Executive Board at DANDRITE, the research activities seem to be achieving the goals of advancing our basic understanding of the brain's inner workings, which in turn can aid in developing new treatments for neurological disorders:

“DANDRITE’s cutting-edge research approach has resulted in several significant discoveries in molecular and systems neuroscience such as synaptic function and plasticity, memory associated proteins, memory formation, the molecular basis of decision making as well as in human pluripotent stem cells,” says Jens Christian Hedemann Sørensen.

According to another close collaborator in the field, Professor at the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Helsinki, Mart Saarma, DANDRITE’s research has a significant impact on how we understand the structures of the brain. As former Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board, he has followed the development of DANDRITE closely and compared it to the Finnish sister institute, FIMM. He especially highlights the integration of different scientific disciplines as an important part of the success:     

“DANDRITE has made unique and significant achievements in the integration of structural biology and neuroscience. For example, the discovery of new neuronal functions of the sortilin protein family, initiation of synaptic plasticity research, and exciting work on the mechanism of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases are just a few highlights of the success,” he states and adds:

“In its 10th anniversary year, it can be said that this EMBL-style institution has been a remarkable success.”

DANDRITE Group Leader alumni in high demand
DANDRITE’s “raison d’être” is also what distinguishes it from other research programs.
Based on the “EMBL-model”, DANDRITE recruits young international research talents for a 5+4-year period with a midterm evaluation and gives them the economic resources and the facilities to develop an original research area of their own with this 9-year perspective. This allows for a “high risk – high gain”-research strategy.

According to the Senior Vice President and Head of Science, SVP Grants and Prizes at the Lundbeck Foundation, Jan Egebjerg the EMBL-style is a unique trait of DANDRITE’s success:  

“DANDRITE is an important, alternative talent development model. I would particularly like to point to DANDRITE’s anchoring in the EMBL network as an international quality mark that strengthens visibility and increases the recruitment of research talents at AU. The combination of long-term funding and promising international research talents is strengthening the neuroscientific research environment in and around Aarhus”.

With the first team of Group Leaders nearing the end of their position, the anniversary also marks the coming turnover of a new team of Group Leaders.

One of them, Mark Denham was the first group leader recruited back in 2013. He came from a postdoc position at the Karolinska Institute and previously Melbourne with an interest in studying how the nervous system develops and can be regenerated with stem cells – an area not exploited much in the Danish research community at that time:

“Creating a new research group requires resources, and ambitious stem cell projects take many years to develop. The DANDRITE EMBL model was instrumental in providing me with the time and support to fulfill my research goals,” Mark Denham explains.

Today he has developed a new method for using stem cells to treat neurological diseases – a method he now has patented. He plans to raise funding for a spinout company and take the research into a clinical trial.

“That is the next big milestone in my scientific career,” Mark states.

Two other Group Leaders, Anne von Philipsborn and Keisuke Yonehara have both obtained full professorships, at The University of Fribourg in Switzerland and at the National Institute of Genetics in Japan, respectively. One of our team leaders Magnus Kjærgaard has recently obtained a tenured position as an Associate Professor at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics and is now included in the DANDRITE community as an affiliated researcher.

In addition to sending talents out in the world, DANDRITE has also functioned as a traction patch for several international research profiles, like the professors Daan van Aalten, Marco Capogna, Thomas Willnow, and Jelena Radulovic, who established their research programmes at Aarhus University within the last ten years.      

A new decade - a new generation of scientists
Today DANDRITE has developed into a fully integrated part of Aarhus University and the two host departments, the Department of Biomedicine and the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. It has already resulted in several important spin-offs, with the most significant being the Research Center for Proteins in Memory, PROMEMO, funded by the National Research Foundation in 2018.

Being a basic research center that also focuses on the translation of science into targeted treatments, DANDRITE researchers have numerous collaborations with clinical practice and industry. Among them is the Danish pharmaceutical company, Lundbeck, which among others has funded several Ph.D.-students for studies in Parkinson’s disease. Karina Fog, senior director at Lundbeck has great expectations for the future of DANDRITE:

“With DANDRITE Aarhus University is consolidating its position in the Neuroscience research community and they emerge as the university that will be mentioned first if someone asks where the best researchers in the field are located in Denmark,” she states and adds: 

“I expect that it will become even more clear in the next 10 years because the first group leaders have established themselves and new exciting people have joined.”

Within the next few years, a total number of five new group leaders will be integrated into the research community and will define the next ten years for DANDRITE. Three of them are already recruited.

One of them is Thomas Kim, who left a postdoc position at the Johns Hopkins University in the US to come to build up his lab focusing on the mechanisms behind neurodegeneration:

“I have followed DANDRITE through several years and have especially been impressed by its ability to attract and retain a pool of talents with a very diverse research focus. For me, DANDRITE has become a “brand” that is known for high-quality research, and I hope I can add more value to the DANDRITE brand and its activities,” he explains. 

This year the Senior Management Team was also strengthened with a fourth member, Professor in Neurobiology, Jelena Radulovic. She has been affiliated with DANDRITE since 2020 and holds a shared professorship between Aarhus University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Looking into the future, director Poul Nissen is optimistic:

“I believe we have built a strong organizational foundation for the next ten years to come that also integrates us well in the host departments. With Jelena’s entry as part of the management team, and a new group of incoming talents we have all the prerequisites to keep up the good work.”