Christina Bligaard Pedersen and Nikolaj Kofoed Mandsberg

Talented PhD Students awarded with prestigious travel grants

onsdag 04 mar 20

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Christina Bligaard Pedersen
Ph.d.-studerende
DTU Sundhedsteknologi
45 25 24 77

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Nikolaj Kofoed Mandsberg
Ph.d.-studerende
DTU Sundhedsteknologi

Two young researchers from DTU Health Tech have received EliteForsk Travel Grants from the Danish Ministry for Higher Education and Science.

On 27 February 2020, PhD Students Christina Bligaard Pedersen and Nikolaj Kofoed Mandsberg participated in the annual EliteForsk award ceremony, where the prestigious EliteForsk Travel Grant was presented to them. They will use the grants to obtain further knowledge to strengthen their PhD projects by visiting excellent international research groups.

The two researchers work within different areas of health technology – Bioinformatics and Bioinspired materials – but they share a common drive towards wanting to make the world better and help cure or prevent diseases.

Christina Bligaard Pedersen

Christina Bligaard Pedersen, a PhD Student in the Bioinformatics section at DTU Health Tech, is working within the field of breast cancer and immunotherapy. Developing tools that can help patients and have an impact on somebody’s live is an important driver for Christina in her work.

Consequently, she enjoys working in an environment that combines the technical with a clinical side. Her collaborators from Center for Genomic Medicine at Rigshospitalet provide the data set that Christina is working with. Christina’s task is to analyse the very large set of data, or in other words, make sense of it so it is possible to utilize the extensive amount of knowledge that actually lies within the data.

The technologies for collecting data are getting better and better, so we have to develop and improve the tools to analyse this data accordingly”, Christina says.

The goal of her analyses is to improve utilization of immunotherapy in breast cancer. Immunotherapy is stimulation of the body’s immune response for battling the cancerous cells, and it has been proven successful against certain types of cancer. However, in breast cancer, immunotherapy has not yet been very successful. The reason for this, Christina explains, is that the immune cells do not penetrate the breast tumors very much, which means that immune cells are less likely to clear this type of tumor cells.

Christina analyses the interaction that takes place in the tumor between the cancer cells and the immune cells, and in particularly the changes that occur, which makes it possible for the cancer cells to hide from the immune system. Because she is studying this at the single-cell level, she gets a much deeper understanding of the tumor and what is going on inside it.

She explains, “Previously, tumors have been investigated through bulk sequencing, which means that you look at the whole tumor and get an average across the tumor’s different types of cells. With single-cell studies, we can begin to understand the interaction between the individual types of cells and why the cancer cells can hide from the immune system. This can provide clues about how to make better immunotherapy to actually fight the cancer”.

Part of the EliteForsk Travel Grant will take her to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School in Boston, where they are experts in the single-cell RNA sequencing technology that Christina plans to use in her project. It is a unique opportunity for her to learn about the technology and work on methods for filtering the data and extracting the biological signals in a meaningful way.

Nikolaj Kofoed Mandsberg

Nikolaj Kofoed Mandsberg, a PhD Student in the IDUN section at DTU Health Tech, is working with biological mapping of individuals to get a better understanding of the bacteria in our gut.

Recent years have shown a connection between the bacteria culture in our gut and our immune system’s ability to fight all kinds of diseases. But there is still a lot we do not know about the gut and its bacteria composition. So connecting specific diseases with the content of our gut is difficult until we get more knowledge.

The aim of Nikolaj’s project is to map individual’s intestinal bacterial composition in order to strengthen their immune system through personalized bacteria supplements.

Being able to treat diseases is good, but if we can prevent that people get ill in the first place, then we can save a lot of discomfort for the patients, but also save a lot of resources for society”, Nikolaj explains.

Faeces samples can tell us something about the make-up of the bacteria, but they do not tell us exactly where each type of bacteria comes from in the gut, or how it looked in its original uncontaminated state before it travelled up to 24 hours through our system. Another option is to open up the gastrointestinal tract of people, and then take out samples from specific areas of the intestine, however, if we want to analyse numerous healthy peoples’ guts, then this is not a viable option.

Nikolaj is working on a possible solution. The idea is to use microcontainers, developed in Anja Boisen’s IDUN research group, for collecting bacteria in the gut. They can be administered orally, and, with an addition of a special coating that isolates and protects the bacteria inside the container, we can get a much more detailed and accurate picture of a person’s gut.

The travel grant will make it possible for Nikolaj to go to University of Tokyo to visit Professor Hirotaka Ejima’s research group – Bioinspired Polymeric Materials Lab – who developed a special technique to nano-coat among others, living objects.

About EliteForsk Travel Grants

The Ministry of Higher Education and Science awards 20 EliteForsk Travel Grants per year. The travel grants are awarded to particularly talented PhD students to be used for long-term study stays at excellent international research environments. Read more.

Read more about the award winners (in Danish)

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