Award-winning research collaboration: When our immune system becomes our worst enemy

​This year, the international KFJ Award has been awarded to Professor Tom Eirik Mollnes from Norway who, together with Rigshospitalet, researches into immunology to discover new ways of treating cardiovascular diseases and severe blood poisoning.

Innate immunity is the body’s first line of defence against infections. However, the immune system can also be our worst enemy, tricked into attacking the body and causing, among other things, cardiovascular diseases and severe blood poisoning. This has been demonstrated in ground-breaking research by the award-winning Danish-Norwegian research collaboration. This year, an evaluation committee has decided to award Rigshospitalet's international KFJ Award to Professor Tom Eirik Mollnes from Norway, whose research into the complement system in the immune system holds great potential. 

Prof. Mollnes’ collaboration partner, Prof. Peter Garred from the Department of Clinical Immunology, recommended him for the award. The award was created in the hope of increasing Rigshospitalet's international collaboration and includes a donation of DKK 1.5 million for additional research from the Kirsten and Freddy Johansen Foundation. 

Prof. Mollnes and Prof. Garred have collaborated on developing new methods to measure the activity in the innate immune system, which have since become the worldwide standard.  The award and the donation provide opportunities to further develop and strengthen this collaboration.

Photo: Prof. Tom Eirik Mollnes

Inflammatory reaction damages tissue

Tom Eirik Mollnes and Peter Garred's collaboration focused on the part of the innate immune system called the complement system, which is particularly important to protect us from e.g. meningococcal infections. The two researchers discovered that this immune system can also become our own worst enemy if the complement system becomes over-activated or 'tricked' into attacking the body itself. In this case, an undesirable inflammatory reaction will develop and cause damage to the patient's own tissue. This reaction may result in the development of cardiovascular disease (hardening of the arteries) which in turn can lead to blood clots in the heart and brain. Today, this is one of the leading causes of death worldwide (over 7 million patients annually) and accounts for 13% of all deaths.  

Another serious disease that is partially predicated by over-activation of the complement system is blood poisoning (sepsis). A total of 750,000 patients worldwide are diagnosed with the disease annually, and the mortality rate is about 30%. Prof. Mollnes hypothesised that an individual patient does not die due to the bacteria but by his/her own over-activated immune system.  He has carried out several animal tests that support his hypothesis. 

Bacteria is treated using antibiotics as soon as the patient arrives at hospital, but the big problem is that the innate immune system (including the complement system) is so over-activated that it primarily attacks the patient who, at worst, may die due this over-activation. Tom Eirik Mollnes and his team are the only researchers so far who have attempted an intensive treatment that, from the onset of over-activation, shuts down the complement system as well as a majority of the innate immune system. There have been several successful animal trials, and the future aim is to treat human patients suffering from life-threatening sepsis with a medicine that can inhibit the complement system.  

New treatment types

Peter Garred and Tom Eirik Mollnes would like to use the KFJ donation to set up a scientific programme to investigate how best to inhibit the innate immune system, with specific focus on the complement system. The KFJ donation is in recognition of the research results already achieved, but this research may potentially lead to new ways of treating cardiovascular diseases and blood poisoning. In the long run, this might effect a number of other diseases where it is believed that the complement system is harming the patient. 

Professor Tom Eirik Mollness will receive the KFJ Award on Wednesday 6 December at 14:30 at a reception at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen. 

About the award recipient:  

Born in 1965, Tom Eirik Mollness qualified as a physician in Bergen in 1981, received his doctorate from Oslo in 1985 and is now a researcher at Nordlandsykehuset in Bodø and a Professor at the University of Tromsø, the University of Oslo and the Centre of Molecular Inflammation Research at NTNU - Trondheim.  

About the KFJ Award:

Rigshospitalet’s International KFJ Award is named after Kirsten and Freddy Johansen. Their foundation donates the DKK1.5 million awarded annually.  

The award is presented to an internationally high-ranking researcher. The researcher may not be employed at Rigshospitalet, but should have an existing collaboration with one or more international research communities at the hospital. 

In a globalised world, Rigshospitalet aims at cooperating with the best hospitals and researchers in the world.  The purpose of the award is therefore to strengthen the research community at Rigshospitalet by creating ties to international researchers and international research communities.   

The award was first presented in 2011. 

All senior researchers at Rigshospitalet may recommend a candidate for the award. An evaluation committee assesses recommended candidates.

Contact information:

Professor Tom Eirik Mollnes: Telephone number:  0047 906 30 015, e-mail: t.e.mollnes@gmail.com

Professor Peter Garred: Telephone number: 0045 26806606, e-mail: peter.garred@regionh.dk

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