Australian professor honoured after long collaboration

This year, the international KFJ Award goes to Professor Mark Febbraio, who has been working with Copenhagen University Hospital - Rigshospitalet on research into the effect of physical activity on the immune system for more than two decades.

​Professor Mark Febbrario with Freddy Johansen and Kirsten Johansen. 

Professor Mark Febbraio lives on the other side of the world, but he has been a regular guest in Denmark for more than 20 years. First, he was a guest researcher for a year, and since then, with more than 40 visits to Copenhagen University Hospital - Rigshospitalet, he has built up a fruitful research collaboration with Professor Bente Klarlund Pedersen from TrygFonden’s Centre for Physical Activity Research. This long research collaboration has now been recognised, as Mark Febbraio has received this year’s International KFJ Award from Copenhagen University Hospital - Rigshospitalet.  The award includes a donation of DKK 1,750,000 from the Kirsten and Freddy Johansen Foundation.  

Mark Febbraio is head of the Cellular & Molecular Metabolism Laboratory within Drug Discovery Biology at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He is internationally recognised for landmark research that may lead to the development of new treatments for insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease (steatosis), and cancer of the liver.

Bente Klarlund Pedersen nominated him for the award. 

“I first met Mark Febbraio in Australia in 1999. At that time, we were both researching the effects of physical exercise on the immune system. Over the years, he’s been an extremely dedicated and productive research colleague, and he has been a strong contributor to the various research communities at our hospital,” said Bente Klarlund Pedersen. 

She stressed that the collaboration with Mark Febbraio has led to some crucial research breakthroughs. In his time as a guest researcher in Denmark, he helped conduct a number of studies that resulted in the ground-breaking finding that skeletal muscle is an endocrine organ. Further to this, he helped unravel the biological effects of the IL-6 signalling molecule by demonstrating that this cytokine is involved in muscle-liver communication during exercise and plays a significant role in lipid metabolism and muscle glucose uptake.

When the Danish-Australian collaboration began, both professors focused on human physiology and metabolism from a clinical perspective. However, in order to preserve the synergy between their research teams, Mark Febbraio decided to change research strategy and he built up an advanced molecular biological unit at his university in Melbourne, with focus on cell-based and preclinical models, while Professor Bente Klarlund Pedersen’s research team extended their expertise in physiological and clinical studies.

Publications attract international interest

In recent years, two publications in particular have attracted international interest. 

In a ground-breaking article in 2018, Mark Febbraio’s research team introduced a paradigm shift when they found that inter-tissue communication during exercise is mediated by extracellular vesicles (EVs). Together with Copenhagen University Hospital - Rigshospitalet, Mark Febbraio will now examine the role of EVs in diseases such as liver steatosis and cancer, and whether his findings in mice can be reproduced in human samples.

In an equally fascinating article in Nature in 2019, Mark Febbraio introduced the world to a gp130 ligand called IC7Fc that his research team engineered from the cytokine, IL6. The research demonstrated that IC7Fc improves glucose tolerance and prevents weight gain and liver steatosis in mice. Therefore, IC7Fc is a realistic next-generation biological drug for the treatment of disorders such as type 2 diabetes and muscle atrophy. The researchers have developed IC7Fc molecules that will be used in clinical trials at Copenhagen University Hospital - Rigshospitalet to test whether the molecules can delay gastric emptying and improve glycaemic control in humans. 

According to Mark Febbraio, the key to successful research collaboration is that Copehagen University Hospital - Rigshospitalet makes it possible to test pre-clinical trials in the clinic.

“It’s an honour to receive this award after such a long collaboration. Professor Bente Klarlund Pedersen is an excellent clinical researcher, and our Danish partner hospital has a series of clinical protocols that we can use when we test our IC7Fc candidate drug, which is almost ready for phase 1 trials. The award will enable us to intensify our research in the area further,” said Mark Febbraio. 

Celebrated researcher

Mark Febbraio’s research career has so far enjoyed more than 45,000 citations in scientific journals, with an H index of 117. 

Over the years, he has won several awards within both endocrinology and more broadly across medical specialities. Most recently, in 2020 he received Australia’s answer to an Oscar within research, the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research, which is awarded across all disciplines. In 2021, in the United Kingdom he received the Society of Endocrinology International Medal for his significant efforts within endocrinological disciplines. 

About the KFJ Award

Copenhagen University Hospital - Rigshospitalet’s International KFJ Award is named after Kirsten and Freddy Johansen. Their foundation donates the DKK1.75 million awarded annually.  

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

In a globalised world, Copenhagen University Hospital - 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 the hospital by creating ties to international researchers and international research communities.   

The award was first presented in 2011. 

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

Previous recipients of the KFJ Award

  • 2021: Elie Azoulay, Professor at the Paris Diderot University and head of the critical care department at St. Louis Hospital in Paris, France.  
  • 2020: John McMurray, Professor at University of Glasgow, Scotland.  
  • 2019: Kári Stefánsson, professor at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Iceland, CEO and founder of deCODE genetics. 
  • 2018: Jorma Toppari, professor in physiology at Turku University, Finland. 
  • 2017: Tom Eirik Mollnes, senior researcher at Nordland Sykehus in Bodø, Norway, professor in immunology at Oslo and Tromsø universities and professor at the Centre of Molecular Inflammation Research (CEMIR) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
  • 2016: John E. Dick, professor and senior researcher at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre at the University Health Network in Toronto, Canada.
  • 2015: John C. Burnett, professor and cardiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA.
  • 2014: Mary Relling, pharmacist at the Pharmaceutical Department, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee, USA.
  • 2013: Søren Bentzen, professor in epidemiology and radiotherapy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, USA
  • 2012: Tomas Olsson, professor in neurology at the Center for Molecular Medicine and the Department of Neurology at Karolinska Sjukhuset in Stockholm, Sweden
  • 2011: Bruce R. Rosen, professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA.

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