June 29, 2022

Major grant for mapping the mechanisms behind nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded a grant of DKK 10 million to Panu K. Luukkonen, doctor and Adjunct Professor at the University of Helsinki, to map why one quarter of all adults develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The grant is part of the Foundation’s Research Leader Programme, under which DKK 428 million has just been awarded.

At some time in their lives, 25% of all adults develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

This disease is strongly associated with obesity and is also a risk factor for developing many other diseases. Nevertheless, researchers have not yet fully understood why some people develop it but others do not.

One possible explanation is dysfunctional mitochondria in the liver cells. Mitochondria are cellular power plants that makes cells function properly.

Panu K. Luukkonen of the University of Helsinki will now seek to verify this theory with a grant of DKK 10 million from the Foundation’s ambitious Research Leader Programme. The research aims to improve understanding of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and to suggest treatment options.

“Dysfunctional mitochondria in the liver cells appear to increase the risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Investigating this possible association is important, since this can affect both diagnosis and the potential for treating people,” explains Panu K. Luukkonen.

Many experiments required to map nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
Liver failure affects the entire body, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is a major risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even more serious liver diseases.

Nevertheless, not all people with obesity develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and not everyone who has it develops the associated diseases. So far, however, what predisposes a person to develop the disease is unknown as is what goes wrong when the liver accumulates more fat than it can tolerate.

Panu K. Luukkonen’s research will map the mechanisms behind the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease through different layers of experiments that are especially relevant to the role of mitochondria.

  • His research group will conduct trials involving people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease to investigate how they respond to various modifiable risk factors for the disease, including weight loss.
  • Using data from hundreds of thousands of people in large biobanks, the researchers will investigate whether mitochondrial dysfunction is associated with an increased risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease at the population level.
  • Finally, in experiments with mice, the researchers will examine whether existing drugs targeting the mitochondria can cure nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

“This involves mapping the mechanisms behind nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, in which the mitochondria appear to play a role, and identifying new targets for treatment. Finally, we also hope to find biomarkers that can help to identify people at high risk of developing the disease,” says Panu K. Luukkonen.

Establishing his own research group
Panu K. Luukkonen was a postdoctoral fellow in a research group at Yale University in the United States for 3 years, but he has now returned to Finland, where he can establish his own research group based on the grant from the Foundation.

He explains that the grant will enable him to be as ambitious as he wants, and he is therefore very excited.

“This really substantial grant will enable me to establish my own research group and to pursue the research that I personally find most relevant and interesting. This grant is critical for the next step in my career,” concludes Panu K. Luukkonen.

Grants awarded to 44 researchers
The grant to Panu K. Luukkonen is part of the Foundation’s Research Leader Programme and has been awarded under the Endocrinology and Metabolism theme.

The Foundation has just awarded DKK 428 million to 44 researchers through the Programme, which supports the development of research leaders carrying out research within health, disease and sustainability. Grants under the Endocrinology and Metabolism theme accounted for 11 of the 44 grants awarded.

See the other 10 grant recipients within this theme here and read more about the 44 grants awarded in 2022 here.