Rune Busk Damgaard. Foto: DTU

Scientists examine molecule behind the metabolism of cancer cells

Friday 10 May 19


Bjarke Bak Christensen
Head of Department
DTU Bioengineering
+45 30 66 42 33

Research Leader Programme

Read more about The Novo Nordisk Foundation awards grants to Rune Busk Damgaards researchprojekt: Ubiquitin-dependent regulation of mTOR: linking immune signalling, cell growth, and metabolism in inflammation and cancer, and 11 excellent research leaders within bioscience and basic biomedicine.


Postdoc Rune Busk Damgaard receives a grant of 10 mill DKK for his research on signaling molecules that can regulate the metabolism of cancer cells. 


Do inflammatory conditions enhance the growth of cancerous cells by changing their metabolism? That is the question postdoc Rune Busk Damgaard has received a grant of 10 mill DKK from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to answer together with a new research team at DTU Bioengineering.

The team’s research focus will be the chemical signal molecules that our body’s immune system produce when people suffer from inflammation. These signaling molecules also have the ability to enhance growth in cancerous cells. Through his experiments, Rune Busk Damgaard has discovered that the signaling molecules that regulate the activation of immune cells and inflammation also regulate the metabolism of cancer cells.

Rune Busk Damgaard explains that the signaling molecules have the characteristics of tiny chemical modifications, known as ubiquitin, on proteins. Ubiquitin signals are utilized in the body’s immune system where they control receptors on the surface of immune cells and regulate the processes that happen inside the cells. Rune Busk Damgaard compares this process to a relay race where the receptors and the ubiquitin signals start a relay at the surface of the cell, which will decide which genes and metabolic processes that will be activated inside the cell.

“The truly interesting thing that we have discovered is that the same processes can enhance the development of cancer and are important for the growth of cancer cells. If we can understand this on a biochemical level then we have the opportunity, in the long run, to manipulate it and utilize it to turn the growth of cancer cells on or off,” says Rune Busk Damgaard.

Turns cancer cells off

Cancer caused by chronic inflammation, e.g. certain forms of liver cancer, account for nearly every fifth case of cancer.

Rune Busk Damgaard explains that the correlation between chronic inflammation and cancer has been known for a long time, but that it remains unclear which biochemical processes that control the development of this type of cancer. The focus on the signaling molecule ubiquitin’s role is an entirely new take on this field of research. This approach opens up the possibility of cutting off the signals that activate the metabolism and growth of cancer cells.

Rune Busk Damgaard has a PhD in molecular cell biology from the University of Copenhagen and has been researching signaling molecules and ubiquitin at University of Cambridge’s Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology for the past five years. With DTU’s technological platforms in proteomics and mass-spectrometry available, he finds that DTU offers excellent potential to develop his research in signal molecules further.  

“It will be a tremendous starting point for the research team to have its base of operation at DTU. The technologies and facilities that we need are absolutely world-class at DTU and are placed in close proximity to the lab, and DTU Bioengineering already has some established research groups studying inflammation and immunology who are doing some very interesting work,” says Rune Busk Damgaard.

Development of new biomedicine

Head of Department at DTU Bioengineering, Bjarke Bak Christensen, is very happy that Rune Busk Damgaard has chosen to set up his research laboratory at DTU Bioengineering.

“Biotechnology and public health is a strategic priority at DTU. Therefore it holds great value for the development of new technologies and treatments that we attract elite scientists to do their research here. In this context, Rune Busk Damgaard’s research is a very important contribution to the strategic goals within the field of biomedicine at DTU," says Bjarke Bak Christensen.

Rune Busk Damgaard expects to gather his team, consisting of four employees, at DTU Bioengineering in January 2020.