Helena Damtoft Tjørnelund

Talented student receives Novo scholarship

Friday 20 Dec 19


Helena Damtoft Tjørnelund
PhD student
DTU Chemistry


Günther H.J. Peters
DTU Chemistry
+45 45 25 24 86

About the master thesis

Title: Computational Study of Kinetically Stable Proteins.

Stable proteins are crucial in the development of better and cheaper medicine. The thesis focuses on investigating the structural basis for kinetic stability in proteins using simulations on the computer. The purpose is to understand kinetically stable proteins at the molecular level, thereby being able to design new stable proteins that can function under extreme conditions.

Supervisor: Professor Günther H. J. Peters.

Kinetically stable proteins

Kinetically stable proteins are, unlike most proteins, not in equilibrium between the folded and unfolded protein, as a high-energy barrier locks the protein in the folded structure.

The high-energy barrier between the native and unfolded protein can guarantee that the protein is functional even under extreme conditions.

Master student at DTU Chemistry Helena Damtoft Tjørnelund has been selected to receive the Novo Nordisk Foundation scholarship, which is awarded to the country's most talented master students in the natural sciences.

Now it will be easier for Helena Damtoft Tjørnelund to devote all her time to her master thesis. She is one of the talented students who have been selected to receive the Novo Nordisk Foundation's grant of a total of DKK 35,000 during her thesis.

And although Helena is starting her thesis in the new year, she is already in the process of preparing.

“I'm going to write about kinetically stable proteins, which is crucial for the development of future medicine. Right now we're choosing the proteins I am going to investigate. At the same time, we are testing and finding different methods of analysis, “says Helena, who is proud of receiving the scholarship and looks forward to being able to focus on her research without having to think about finances.

She is enrolled in the Master's programme in Applied Chemistry at DTU. Helena got the idea for her master thesis this spring when her supervisor Professor Günther Peters at DTU Chemistry initiated a collaboration with Professor Wilfredo Colón of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York. The goal is to combine Colón’s results within for kinetically stable proteins using Günther Peter's methods in modelling protein properties on computer.

“In August, Günther Peters and I visited RPI to present our preliminary results, and it was here that we agreed that it could be exciting to continue the collaboration in connection with my master thesis,” she elaborates.

Professor Wilfredo Colón of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has therefore, become co-supervisor of Helena's thesis, and Novozymes is now also involved.


Stable proteins provide better medicine
Today more and more medicine contain proteins because protein-based medicines have proven to be safer and more effective than traditional. Similarly, several industrial products such as foods, washing powders and bioethanol are using proteins or containing proteins as an active ingredient.

However, the challenge with the protein-based medicine is to keep the proteins stable and active for a long time, and therefore more knowledge about the structures and properties of proteins at the atomic level is needed.

“Some proteins have high kinetic stability, which results in them losing their properties only in extreme environments, for example under very high or low pH values. Professor Wilfredo Colón of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has designed an assay that can be used to identify kinetically stable proteins. The assay works at a macroscopic level and therefore it does not provide a molecular understanding of why some proteins are kinetically stable, “explains Helena.

She continues:

"Therefore, in my master thesis, I will analyze kinetically stable proteins using modelling and simulations on the computer to find the structural basis for kinetic stability at a molecular level."

The results should contribute to a greater understanding of kinetically stable proteins so that new proteins can be designed with high stability, which will make the proteins able to function longer and under extreme conditions. The new proteins can thus be used for, among other things, to develop cheaper, better and more durable medicines.

Dreaming of a PhD in the future
It is important to Helena, that the results can be used because she is motivated by working with issues where you can make a difference.

“I am passionate about working with proteins, especially as new and more environmentally friendly medicines are an important step towards the UN's Global Goals. But proteins are a large and complex study field, and there is still much to explore, so I hope that in the future I can continue my research in the form of a PhD project, ”she concludes.

The Novo Scholarship Programme

The Novo Scholarship Programme is the Novo Nordisk Foundation's annual scholarship for master thesis writing.

Novozymes is behind the grant together with Novo Nordisk, and it is awarded to some of the most talented students who write master thesis in Novo Nordisk's and Novozyme's research areas.

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