Eske Willerslev receives prestigious Norwegian science prize for his Lundbeck Foundation research on brain disorders
Professor Eske Willerslev, head of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen, has received the Norwegian Olav Thon Foundation’s International Research Award 2021.
This is a personal award – therefore, not earmarked for research – and it is worth a round NOK 5 million, or approximately DKK 3.6 million.
Eske Willerslev, 49, is being honoured for his “outstanding, broad and original” research in the field of human evolution.
The Olav Thon Foundation highlights in particular Eske Willerslev’s leadership of international research partnerships that seek to map the evolutionary origin of a range of brain disorders, including mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and ADHD, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Brain disorders are the Lundbeck Foundation’s special focus area, and the aspiration to map the genetic origin of brain disorders was the reason why the Lundbeck Foundation awarded a grant of DKK 60 million in 2018 to fund the analysis of 5,000 archaeological samples.
These samples contained human DNA from skeletons, teeth and bone fragments found in Europe and western Asia, and, for the most part, they originate from archaeological collections. The oldest sample was found in Siberia and is more than 30,000 years old.
The grant is linked to the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre.
The centre, which is part of the University of Copenhagen, is run by Professor Eske Willerslev, and the work to analyse the 5,000 ancient samples of human DNA has already resulted in a number of scientific articles, published in Nature and Science, among others.
Some of the questions the project seeks to answer are:
Where do brain disorders like depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s actually come from – in a geographical sense?
When and in which environmental circumstances did they sneak into human DNA?
And why do these brain disorders still stick around in our human DNA when they are obviously the source of considerable suffering and make life difficult for an awful lot of people?
The work is coordinated jointly by Eske Willerslev and the other members of the project management: Professor Thomas Werge, head of the Research Institute for Biological Psychiatry under the auspices of the Capital Region of Denmark, and Rasmus Nielsen, professor of biostatistics at the University of Copenhagen and UC Berkeley in the USA.
In addition to DNA researchers, biostatisticians and experts in biological psychiatry, a wide range of other specialists often participate in the studies, including epidemiologists, forensic scientists and protein researchers.
The questions about the genetic origin of brain disorders are significant for the scientific mapping of the DNA architecture of these disorders needed to develop novel therapies.
And it is an exceedingly complex research field, partly because there are so many uncertainties to take into account when you compare present-day DNA with DNA that is thousands of years old.
However, the work – for which Eske Willerslev is now being rewarded by the Norwegian Olav Thon Foundation – is beginning to yield its first results.
These were reported in a study of Viking DNA, which experts from the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, in collaboration with around 80 colleagues from numerous international research institutions, published in Nature in September 2020.
‘This was the first time we looked for psychiatric risk variants in the archaeological DNA, and we’ll be doing many more similar studies of brain disorders in the years ahead,’ says Professor Willerslev.
The researchers examined a total of 442 skeletons from the Viking era and looked for 100,000 genetic risk variants associated with schizophrenia in present-day DNA.
In a couple of Viking bones found in present-day Norway, the frequency of these variants was statistically higher than in DNA samples taken from present-day Scandinavians.
The researchers are careful not to draw hasty conclusions from this discovery. However, it seems that ancient DNA offers potential for investigating the architecture of brain disorders. As Eske Willerslev says:
‘It’s a question of developing and refining our methods of examination and analysis. And this is a constant work in progress.’
The Olav Thon Foundation was established by the Norwegian businessman of the same name.
Olav Thon, who will turn 98 this year, made billions on the property market.
In 2013, on his 90th birthday, he transferred almost all of his assets to the foundation, which today gives grants worth around NOK 50 million annually to medical research, among other things.