A Blue Sky Collaboration

Novo Nordisk underwrites unfettered exploration by Institute researchers

Microscopy of epithelial and mesenchymal cells

Epithelial and mesenchymal cells


Christina Scheel/Whitehead Institute


Whitehead Members Rudolf Jaenisch and Richard Young are both world-class scientists and worldwide adventurers who scale mountains, traverse deserts, and kayak wild waterways. Often they merge the two roles, giving seminars for scientists in the countries they venture through. One such seminar—in Copenhagen in 2015—led to a series of wide-ranging conversations with scientists at Novo Nordisk, the Denmark-based developer of treatments for chronic conditions including diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
Those conversations blossomed into a major research program—a series of broadly defined, intersecting basic science projects being undertaken at Whitehead Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The projects are underwritten by a multi-million dollar sponsored research agreement from Novo Nordisk over three years. Notably, Novo Nordisk’s support comes with a uniquely open approach to nurturing truly ground-breaking explorations: no mandated transfer of intellectual property or special rights; just the opportunity to enable the research progress and discuss it directly with the researchers.
“I would call this a ‘blue sky’ collaboration,” says Jaenisch. “The projects are not completely defined from the outset, and there may not be any patentable intellectual property emerging from our work.” Underwriting discovery research—investigations not aimed at a specific medical problem—is not typically how pharmaceutical companies fund research, notes Young. “But Novo Nordisk realized that we are exploring important questions in new ways,” he recalls. “They also recognized that we have a pretty good track record of turning up important findings in unexpected places.”
Jaenisch and Young are joined in this powerhouse research collaboration by Linda Griffith, MIT professor of biological engineering and mechanical engineering, and by Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp, MIT Institute Professor, member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, and member of the Whitehead Institute board of directors.
The Novo Nordisk-funded projects seek fundamental knowledge about, for example, the mechanisms underlying gene regulation and the emergence of disease-causing mutations. But their discoveries could also eventually lead to new approaches to diagnosing and treating a range of diseases. “We share many of the company’s intellectual interests,” Young notes. “The basic functions we are exploring could shed light on interactions that lead, ultimately, to disease—perhaps helping us understand how cells’ epigenetics are changed, or whether interactions among different tissue types create conditions that allow disease.”
“This is a situation in which Novo Nordisk and the researchers share both a genuine passion for the basic science and a long-term perspective,” says Marcus Schindler, Senior Vice President for Global Drug Development at Novo Nordisk. “Supporting the work of these extraordinarily accomplished scientists is one way we are investing in new models of collaboration that can lead to transformational biological and technological innovations in human health.