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Annika Jenmalm Jensen: Bigger Research Challenges Build Bigger Breakthroughs

She likes to solve complex research puzzles–those that require matching intellects, instruments and vast laboratory spaces spread across an entire country. She enjoys challenges that involve research reproducibility and those that introduce cutting edge technology. “This is the aspect of science I embrace–the challenges make research more intriguing.”

Annika Jenmalm Jensen, Ph.D., puts 19 years of experience in industry and academic research to work for others each day. Before Jensen began building successful collaborative platforms in academia, she worked with preclinical drug discovery in industry, focusing on cross-discipline efforts for companies such as Pharmacia & Upjohn (the site in Sweden, in which Jensen worked, became Biovitrum, now SOBI).

“I had fantastic years in industry,” says Jensen, who completed her Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry at Uppsala University (Uppsala, Sweden). She chose to enter the industry side of the business after graduation because, “the forefront of small molecule drug discovery is in industry. I realized during those 10-plus years spent in industry that drug discovery has many challenges, but this is something I embrace.”

Now, she is infrastructure director for the Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab; Stockholm, Sweden), a national center for molecular biosciences with a focus on health and environmental research. Jensen manages the advanced and innovative tools and technology of four universities–the Karolinska Institute, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm University (all located in Stockholm) and Uppsala University–and directs the experienced and extremely dedicated staff scientists.

During 2017, 681 published articles emerged from SciLifeLab’s facilities. Included among these articles were those published in SLAS Technology (Translating Life Sciences Innovation), such as "Ultra-High-Throughput Sample Preparation System for Lymphocyte Immunophenotyping Point-of-Care Diagnostics," and in SLAS Discovery (Advancing Life Sciences R&D),"Early Perspective Microplate Applications of the Cellular Thermal Shift Assay (CETSA)."

The articles published that included data results or analysis carried out by one of SciLifeLab facilities illustrates the wide spectrum of life science that can be addressed by SciLifeLab. The articles included Alessandro Furlan et al. in, "Multipotent Peripheral Glial Cells Generate Neuroendocrine Cells of the Adrenal Medulla," in which researchers used single cell transcriptomics to reveal the shifts in the mature adrenal gland in functional programs during migration, development and differentiation.

Another 2017 article from Katarzyna Zaremba-Niedzwiedzka, et al., "Asgard Achaea Illuminate the Origin of Eukaryotic Cellular Complexity," describes the ‘Asgard’ superphylum,  a group of uncultivated archaea that, as well as Lokiarchaeota, includes Thor-, Odin- and Heimdallarchaeota. Asgard archaea affiliate with eukaryotes in phylogenomic analyses, and their genomes are enriched for proteins formerly considered specific to eukaryotes.

In “A Subcellular Map of the Human Proteome,” Peter J. Thul, Ph.D., et al., also published in 2017, present a comprehensive image-based map of the subcellular protein distribution, the Cell Atlas, built by integrating transcriptomics and antibody-based immunofluorescence microscopy with validation by mass spectrometry.

Another breakthrough published in 2017 was “A Pathology Atlas of the Human Cancer Transcriptome,” by Mathias Uhlen, Ph.D., et al. In this article, Uhlen, a keynote speaker for the 2018 SLAS Europe Conference and Exhibition, reveals a computer-based modeling approach that was developed to examine different cancer types in nearly 8,000 patients. The team created an open-access resource for more than 900,000 patient survival profiles that explore how the expression of specific genes influences patient survival in 17 different types of cancer, including tumors of colon, prostate, lung and breast origin. This interactive data set can also be used to generate personalized patient models to predict how metabolic changes can influence tumor growth.

This momentum for breakthroughs in research at SciLifeLab continues in 2018. In the first few months alone, SciLifeLab announced research produced by a SciLifeLab fellow, Adil Mardinoglu of KTH, and colleagues, which shows that reduced carbohydrate intake results in fast and sizeable reductions of liver fat and other cardiometabolic risk factors in individuals suffering from obesity and fatty liver disease.

Another recently published study, led by Ulf Gyllensten, Uppsala University/SciLifeLab, revealed that by using self-sampling followed by HPV-testing, twice as many women with cervical intraepithelial neoplasia-positive (CIN2+) could be identified compared to Pap smear cytology.

In addition to this, SciLifeLab announced a new network, CryoNet, which connects experts in cryo-electron microscopy at the universities in Stockholm, Umeå, Århus and Copenhagen. SciLifeLab in Solna, Sweden will provide two of the microscopes that will be part of the network.

The lab also encourages young scientists early in their careers and promotes their research through an annual prize, the Science and SciLifeLab prize, offered in collaboration with American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science magazine, in the area of life science for the best Ph.D. thesis work. An essay based on the thesis is submitted to the editorial board of Science and four winners are selected and invited for a week in Stockholm to attend the prize ceremony and to interact with the SciLifeLab community. All winners also have their essays published.

SciLifeLab also recently held a call for applications for its Research Community Programs (RCPs), designed to facilitate internationally competitive, cutting-edge collaborative research across Sweden to bring it into the SciLifeLab infrastructure facilities. PIs from any Swedish university could participate in or coordinate an RCP.

The RCPS aim to bring scientific expertise across several departments and universities in Sweden on a particular theme or topic, form new enabling links between infrastructures and researchers and engage established and young PIs to combine forces and work together in multidisciplinary and national collaborations. The call funds the coordination, scientific interaction and community building of the RCPs, while the actual research funding is expected to come from existing research grants, SFO and university funding with the expectation that the RCP participants will seek major grant funding opportunities.

Helping to guide these projects and the work that Jensen does is SciLifeLab Director Olli Kallioniemi, M.D., Ph.D., who joined SciLifeLab as a professor at Karolinska Institute in 2015. Kallioniemi succeeded Mathias Uhlén, who served as the lab’s director since 2010. Kallioniemi continues as a part-time research director of the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) at the University of Helsinki, where he managed the rapid growth of the institute to a nationally and internationally leading and well-known organization, and also served in the Finnish part of the Nordic EMBL Partnership for Molecular Medicine. During the start of Kallioniemi's tenure, FIMM and SciLifeLab launched a close collaboration in infrastructure services as well as in joint research programs to enable new possibilities for both institutes, the participating universities and the two countries.

These projects and many others give Jensen hope that SciLifeLab’s collaborative structure and advanced tools and technology will continue to encourage big breakthroughs. Jensen explains that when the genome was mapped in the 1980s, drug discovery researchers hoped that all the ingredients were available to make developing new drugs much easier, “but it’s still enormously challenging,” she comments.

“We have pursued traditional research methods using target-based discovery and high-throughput screening (HTS). Now we are more flexible in how we approach complex diseases,” she says. “The tools and technology we use are getting there. Organoids, body-on-a-chip and other such advances will influence R&D efficiency in a positive way and I think we can see that already.”

Addressing Collaboration, Competition and Reproducibility 

Jensen is dedicated to drug discovery and “enabling breakthrough discoveries in explorative disease biology to improve R&D efficiency. Today, the biomedical community in academia and industry is facing a huge problem with research reproducibility that among several factors is caused by the pressure from PIs for high-impact findings and publishing,” she says. Add inexperience and a lack of training for Ph.D.s and post docs having to handle multidisciplinary science, and the result is science that can’t be reproduced.

“The SciLifeLab wants to partly influence the system with well trained staff scientists and advanced technology that many academic groups couldn’t afford on their own.” SciLifeLab’s 400 staff scientists, serving in 41 facilities that provide technology and expertise in specified areas of life sciences, including genomics, proteomics, bioimaging, chemical biology, drug discovery and more, oversee various aspects of other researchers’ work at a rate of more than 3,000 projects per year.

“It’s a new time for staff scientists within large scale infrastructures and in academia in general,” continues Jensen, adding that the team tirelessly assists independent researchers, who have great ideas, but not as much training and experience in all required multidisciplines.

“SciLifeLab’s staff scientists offer technical expertise in advanced technologies, enabling great science with a translational potential. I’m very happy to be here in this moment,” says Jensen. “There was an article from the Broad Institute recently that stressed the importance of staff scientists within academia that exactly addressed this fact.”

She points to the wealth of institutions like SciLifeLab in the U.S.–the Broad Institute, the National Institutes of Health, The Scripps Research Institute–as great examples of what SciLifeLab is in Sweden. “What’s interesting in Sweden is that all the Swedish universities are brought together here. We are the only molecular life sciences lab that gives support to the entire Swedish academic community,” Jensen continues. “It’s an interesting project. It gets universities to collaborate more than compete in some areas. You need multidisciplinary science to create great teams that are communicative in a positive way. Large collaborative projects are very important for big breakthroughs although there are still exceptions.”

Building Platforms for Big Breakthroughs in Academia

Jensen built her first academic drug discovery platform in 2009, along with four other researchers, when she left industry and co-founded the Chemical Biology Consortium Sweden (CBCS). CBCS, which became one of ten platforms that now operate under the umbrella of the SciLifeLab, provides industry-standard expertise, instruments, compound collections and collaborative opportunities with other academic research groups to discover and develop small molecules to explore and validate complex biology. Jensen reports that the group’s eventual success was hard won.

“We thought that everyone was our friend and would welcome what we were trying to do,” explains Jensen, who held the position of director of CBCS, as well as a group leader of the Laboratories of Chemical Biology Karolinska Institute (LCBKI). “Then we realized that all of these researchers are competing for the same money; it made it challenging to get teams to collaborate. It was a tough journey in the beginning, but eventually the way we ran research projects led us to become extremely popular.”

She notes that the circumstances required dynamic leadership that set an example for a collaborative culture. “You have to inspire people to take great responsibility for their work and spread the passion for science, so other researchers get excited,” says Jensen.

During this time, even though primarily absorbed with providing service on a national basis, the team also pursued their own research. “We were doing a lot of exciting, technology development in my group using our expertise and capabilities,” she explains. Managing the powerful combination of expertise and instruments to expand the research was all in a day’s work for Jensen.

“I am not afraid to take on new tasks,” says Jensen, adding that her natural curiosity is tempered with a bit of luck. “Ever since my early school years, I have been devoted to natural sciences, in many ways thanks to various high school teachers in math and physics.” She describes herself as a team player and a bit opportunistic when it comes to advancing scientific innovation. “My personality, I think, is very communicative, collaborative and flexible, as well as pragmatic. This combination is an advantage in this complex environment,” she says.

Into the Outdoors

With so many puzzles to solve and challenges to face, Jensen finds that one important task is to find time to step away from work. Living close to the mountains offers many opportunities no matter what the season brings. In spring and summer, she gardens and hikes; in the winter, she escapes the day-to-day rigors of meetings, consultations and paperwork by setting out on skis.

“Sweden is a beautiful country, and I like to be outside. Here, you often learn to ski when you’re only a couple of years old,” says Jensen. Her two grown children–both pursuing science and technology educations–and husband, Anders Vang Jensen, often join her for outdoor expeditions. She recently spent a few of her non-work hours combining back country skiing in Norway and staying inside to watch The 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, with great interest.

To keep fit physically and clear her head, Jensen also enjoys running and vigorous spinning workouts in classes at the gym. “It’s not always fun, but it’s good for you,” she says with a laugh. 

2018 SLAS Europe Conference and Exhibition

Keeping in peak condition is a good idea. As one of the co chairs of the inaugural 2018 SLAS Europe Conference and Exhibition, along with Emilio Diez-Monedero, Ph.D., Atlas Molecular Pharma, Spain, and Ian Shuttler, Ph.D., Tecan, Switzerland, Jensen added a few extra duties to her busy schedule, but is excited about the committee’s development of the scientific program.

“I think the topics that we have chosen are very good,” she says, adding that it’s an honor to be included on the scientific planning committee for the first SLAS Europe Conference and Exhibition. “I was extremely impressed by the Society when I had the opportunity to attend SLAS2017. I hope that the SLAS Europe Conference and Exhibition creates as much excitement in our portion of the scientific community.”

Hot topics such as organoids, iPS derived models and the use of precise gene editing technologies such as TALEN and CRISPR, have been included in the Technology Track. The program also includes topics that range from biological mechanisms involved in aging and degenerative disease to exploring target biology and achieving meaningful knowledge from big data. Keynote speakers for the event include futurist Peter Hinssen of nexxworks (Ghent, Belgium), Mathias Uhlén of the Karolinska Institute (Stockholm, Sweden) and Max Lemke, Components and Systems Unit of the European Commission (Brussels, Belgium).

“The session chairs for the 2018 SLAS Europe event are dedicated to developing the tracks and subject matter to meet the needs of the life sciences community. The competition for meetings is huge, but we intend to offer a program that attracts a lot of people,” says Jensen, who adds that the event also includes poster presentations focusing on thought-provoking research, a multinational exhibition and sessions that explore career opportunities in business and technology.

She hopes attendees will benefit from the aspects of the Society that she personally has enjoyed the most. “Drug discovery is a good network in SLAS,” she notes. “It’s spot on for what I am doing now–being responsible for infrastructure.” She also wants attendees to the event to draw inspiration from the speakers, just as she has at past SLAS International Conference and Exhibition events. She mentions presentations by SLAS member Steve Rees of AstraZeneca and the work of SLAS2015 Conference Co-Chair James Inglese, Ph.D., as particularly inspiring to her.

“Jim Inglese was part of the scientific advisory board when we founded CBCS–along with Stephen Frye and later Giulio Superti-Furga, and they were all extremely important for the development of CBCS,” she says.

“Jim has been very important for us and will attend a SciLifeLab meeting for chemical and genetic screening that is coming up. Science can be a struggle, but it is exciting! When you are faced with challenges, mentors are good for you. It gives you someone to talk to who has more experience and a different perspective,” Jensen concludes.

March 12, 2018