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Researcher will improve diagnoses for cancer

More knowledge about so-called circular RNA could improve the ability to make more accurate diagnoses and predict how the individual patient will respond to certain types of cancer drugs. Lasse Sommer Kristensen from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, AU, receives DKK 10 million from the Lundbeck Foundation for the project.

2019.11.06 | Lisbeth Heilesen

Assistant Professor Lasse Sommer Kristensen, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University. Photo: Lundbeckfonden

In the 1970s, with the help of electron microscopy, scientists discovered that human RNA can also be circular.

However, it was far from clear what this actually meant – and how it might be understood. And up to a few short years ago, it was widely assumed in scientific circles that circular RNA should probably simply be considered an insignificant biological freak of nature.

Circular RNA – which subsequently turned out to have absolutely nothing to do with biological coincidence – is the cornerstone of Lasse Sommer Kristensen’s fellowship.

Lasse Sommer Kristensen, 38, is an assistant professor at the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Aarhus University. His research focuses in the main on cancer, and he explains that his interest in circular RNA is linked to diagnosis:

- ‘I’ll be studying cells from various forms of leukaemia and lymphoma to see how much circular RNA there is in these cells compared with healthy cells. No one has done this yet for these diseases. The primary aim is to gain a better understanding of what goes wrong inside the cancer cells, at a molecular level. And we hope that, with this new knowledge, we’ll be able to make our diagnoses more precise and to predict how individual patients will react to certain types of cancer medicine – before they start taking it,’ says Lasse Sommer Kristensen.

RNA is a molecule primarily described as a transporter of genetic information within our cells and, as such, it helps ensure that the necessary proteins are produced. RNA is also an important component of numerous cell processes.

When it comes to the shape of RNA, it was long assumed to be largely linear – that is, a string with two ends. However, within the past few years, we have been able to study RNA more closely using the latest types of genetic sequencing. And these studies have shown that the circular variant is in no way a biological freak of nature. Lasse Sommer Kristensen explains that, on the contrary, it is naturally present:

- ‘This applies to both healthy cells and sick cells. We also know now that circular RNA plays an important role in the regulation of proteins in tumours – and one of the objectives of my research is to investigate whether it may play a part in the development of cancer.’

With the Lundbeck Foundation’s funding, Lasse Sommer Kristensen can establish his own research group at Aarhus University. The group will be part of the Department of Biomedicine (Health) from 1 January 2020 and will collaborate with researchers from Rigshospitalet, University of Copenhagen, and from universities in Germany and the USA.

Text: Lundbeckfonden

For further information, please contact

Assistant Professor Lasse Sommer Kristensen
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Aarhus University, Denmark
lasse@mbg.au.dk – +45 2888 0562