Wallenberg’s New Data-Driven Research Initiative to Fund Precision Medicine

By Carol Cruzan Morton

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10 December 2020. Precision medicine and diagnostics are a central component of a sweeping 12-year funding initiative to build a data-driven life science research program in Sweden in areas ranging from evolution and infectious disease to biodiversity.

The €300 million (SEK 3.1 billion) national initiative was announced in late October by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, Sweden’s largest private research funder.

An online press conference (see video below) outlined the new initiative’s broad goals, budget, timelines, and connection to other major research programs in the country. For example, funds are earmarked for collaborations with the Wallenberg Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Systems and Software Program (WASP), the single largest private research initiative in Sweden’s history.

The data-driven life science initiative will be hosted by the Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) in collaboration with its university partners.

In early December, SciLifeLab set up a 10-member steering committee to secure agreements with partner universities and form work groups to discuss details, such as how to allocate resources in each of the four areas and how to do that in a data-driven manner, according to speakers at the press conference.

Siv Andersson No White
            Siv Andersson

“It's not designed yet, but there are many, many opportunities here,” said Siv Andersson, a project grants manager at the foundation. She is also co-director of SciLifeLab, a position she will leave in January to avoid a conflict of interest with the foundation, where she will continue.

The initiative will fuel a new kind of research and produce a new kind of scientist that can manage, integrate, and explore the huge numbers of data scientists are generating in Sweden and around the world, said Andersson, also professor of molecular evolution at Uppsala University.

“Altogether, data-driven life science is about developing a new type of working methodology,” she said. “We think that this program will really help by both training people and providing the data support and databases that are necessary for doing so.”

FAIR data is the crux

The new data-driven initiative adds a third dimension to SciLifeLab’s national research community and infrastructure facilities, director Olli Kallioniemi told NSHG-PM in an interview.

SciLifeLab was founded 10 years ago as a collaboration among four universities in Sweden. Since then, it has grown to 400 staff with 1300 unique users and 3000 projects in molecular bioscience distributed among all of Sweden’s major universities.

The number of data have been exponentially increasing from multiple technologies, such as sequencing, mass spectrometry, and imaging. In an internal review to establish strategic objectives for the next 10 years, an international panel reported back that the data themselves may be SciLifeLab’s most important output.

“What we need in the life sciences is to take better care of the data we are producing and mine the data in a deeper and better way,” said Kallioniemi, also professor of molecular precision medicine at the Karolinska Institutet.

Typically, biology is turned into bioinformatics, analyzed one way, and delivered to the research community in a publication.

              Olli Kallioniemi

“But how can you ever really read and understand all those relevant publications?” Kallioniemi asked in the press conference. “This is a challenge for us as a research community. Not only should we be trying to get the next Nature paper, but we should also try to interpret and understand the meaning of the accumulated data sets.”

Further complicating matters in molecular medicine, very little of the data are available in a findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (FAIR) format, he said. 

In precision medicine, another challenge at least as daunting as the science is the ethical, legal, and social implications, which deservedly have a dedicated piece of foundation support, Kallioniemi said.

“This may end up being more difficult than the research part,” he said. “How do we enable people doing the best research and preserving patient privacy? The Nordic advantages (national registries) may disappear unless we can figure out and invent ways to gain access. In the long run, we want to impact patient treatment and return the benefit to the patient.”

Diverse, interrelated initiative

The initiative names four broad life-science priority areas—precision medicine and diagnostics, epidemiology and infection biology, cell and molecular biology, and evolution and biodiversity.

More than half of the foundation’s 12-year investment will go to newly recruited scientists. In total, 39 scientists will be hired for five-year research fellow positions with two each of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. Of those, 12 fellows will be in precision medicine.

The initiative will launch in five phases, beginning in 2021. About half of the fellows will be recruited in the first phase and half in the second phase commencing in 2024. Also beginning in 2024, another 185 PhD students and 135 postdocs will be phased in, most in academic positions and some in industry.

Fellows will be recruited internationally to train the next generation of computational life scientists in Sweden. “We need the best young group leaders and give them a chance to collaborate with each other,” Kallioniemi said. “Science needs this long-term investment to make a difference.”