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New centre will decipher the language of cells

A new basic research centre – CellPAT – will identify how cells ‘talk’ to each other, and thereby make it possible to prevent or correct the type of communication errors that lead to illness.

2017.04.20 | Peter F. Gammelby

Professor Jørgen Kjems is Director of iNANO and will now also be Director of the Centre for Cellular Signal Patterns. Photo: Peter F. Gammelby, Aarhus University

Everyone is familiar with the situation where you are about to pay in the supermarket, but have forgotten the PIN code. In this case, the brain searches for clues such as pattern recognition – where do you normally move your fingers, in which order, and how many times do you press each button?

The cells in the human body communicate in the same way, only at a molecular level. And just as in the macroscopic world, even small communication errors can cause major problems. When errors occur in cellular communication, the entire organism can become ill.

The new Centre for Cellular Signal Patterns (CellPAT) will therefore address fundamental questions in biology to identify how cells ‘talk’ to each other and their surroundings. The Danish National Research Foundation has just decided to provide CellPAT with funds amounting to up to DKK 61 million.

The aim is to use advanced nanotechnology to create results that can be ground-breaking in the battle against some of the major health challenges we are facing today – such as diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis and certain psychiatric disorders.

Complicated language requires advanced equipment

Professor Jørgen Kjems, Aarhus University, takes his point of departure in the fact that the cells communicate through a network of weak interactions that together provide the necessary effect.

“The old assumption that cellular macromolecules recognise each other like a key in a lock is not sufficient. On the contrary, the cell communicates by means of complex signals, where the number and particularly the pattern of contact points play an incredibly major role. Until now, the complexity of this interaction has made scientific studies difficult. Using completely new synthesis and analysis methods, however, we can produce and analyse the signals ourselves at CellPAT,” says Professor Kjems, director of the new centre.

The centre will focus in particular on how our immune cells can recognise the difference between external dangers and ourselves, and why this mechanism sometimes goes wrong and gives rise to autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, sclerosis and diabetes.

The centre will also study the way macromolecules are transported through biological barriers in the body, such as the blood-brain barrier and cell membranes. This knowledge will form the basis for developing more targeted and effective drugs with fewer side effects. In addition, the centre will study which signals the stem cells need to receive in order to develop into specific types of tissue in the body. This knowledge will create an opportunity to use stem cells to re-establish tissue in the body when the old cells are destroyed by a poor lifestyle, disease or injury. It is thought that the method will eventually be used to regenerate human organs.

Professor Kjems is a very experienced research director and one of the leading international profiles in DNA and RNA nanotechnology, where he is particularly recognised for having moved the research front in self-assembling systems in DNA, intracellular circular RNA and genetic medicine. He has been the director of the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (iNANO) at Aarhus University for four years.

Participating at the centre are

Professor Duncan Sutherland, iNANO, Aarhus University
Professor Steffen Thiel, Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University
Professor Fiona Watt, King’s College London, UK
Group Leader Dr Ralf Jungmann, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich (LMU) and
Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry (MPIB) Munich, Germany






For more information, go to the

Danish National Research Foundation’s website






or contact

Professor Jørgen Kjems
Aarhus University
+45 2899 2086

Director Søren-Peter Olesen
Danish National Research Foundation
+45 2028 9706

DNRF Chair, Professor Liselotte Højgaard
Danish National Research Foundation
+45 2753 8688



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