Sweden has produced some of the world’s leading scientists over the centuries, including many pioneering chemists – and as the home of the Nobel Prize, Stockholm has a special place in the world of chemistry.
Chemists at Stockholm University have long upheld this tradition of research and innovation – four Nobel Chemistry Prize winners have been associated with the university, most recently to Paul J Crutzen in 1995.
Some of the most important chemistry research currently being undertaken at Stockholm is being carried out by Professor Gunnar von Heijne. The professor, who until recently was chairman of the Nobel Chemistry Prize Committee, researches on the assembly and structure of membrane proteins and is head of the Centre for Biomembrane Research at the university.
In 2008, von Heijne was awarded a €2 million European Research Council Advanced Grant, to research how cells make membrane proteins. These constitute a third of all the proteins in a cell and play a vital role in the way pharmaceuticals enter cells.
Membrane proteins are associated with cell membranes. More than half of all pharmaceuticals on the market have membrane proteins as their targets. In other words, the pharmaceuticals use membrane proteins as their ‘way in’ to cells.
“Many drugs ‘tickle’ the target cells by binding to the proteins on the membrane,” is how von Heijne describes the process.
This means that understanding more about membrane proteins will have big implications for the development of future drugs.
The Centre for Biomembrane Research is one of the leading research centres in the field, and has around 20 research groups, which study all aspects of biomembranes.
“There are only one or two places in the world that have this broad level of knowledge,” says von Heijne. It is building on the historic strengths of Stockholm University, which has long been a leader in the study of respiration and photosynthesis, both of which have involved research into membrane proteins.
“We realised we had a strong base to build broader-based research into membrane proteins.”
The strength of the centre’s research has attracted talent from around the world, with group leaders drawn from many countries, including from the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, the US and Germany.
“We don’t have to try very hard to find good, young group leaders. The centre has been a magnet for attracting people,” says von Heijne.
In addition, almost all post-doctoral students and most master’s students are from outside Sweden.
“It is rare that we teach a class at master’s level in Swedish, and when we do we find we’re using English terminology all the time,” von Heijne says.
The Stockholm scientific community is, of course, used to a high international profile. This is due not least to its association with the Nobel Prize. von Heijne spent twelve years on the committee that chooses the winner of the Nobel Chemistry Prize, chairing it for three years. In that role he sifted through thousands of nominations and spent up to two months a year working to find a winner.
The Nobel Prizes make Stockholm a particularly stimulating place for researchers; the university welcomes a steady stream of the world’s top scientists as seminar speakers, who are attracted by Stockholm’s Nobel connection:
“You would have to be in a very high profile research university in Europe or the States to see a similarly high-level set of people,” says von Heijne.
Stockholm’s strength in chemistry is not confined to biochemistry. Its first Nobel Prize winner, Svante Arrhenius, was considered one of the founders of physical chemistry, and the university is home to leaders in all areas of chemistry, including organic, inorganic and quantum chemistry.
In the latter field, Fahmi Himo recently received one of Sweden’s most prestigious scientific prizes, the 4.6 million krona Göran Gustafsson Prize, “for his development and application of quantum mechanical techniques for elucidation of enzymatic and homogeneous catalysis of chemical reactions”.
“We have internationally-leading scientists in many research areas – and they all teach. Study here, and you are at the forefront of research,” von Heijne says.