Göteborgs universitets huvudbyggnad i Vasaparken
Photo: Johan Wingborg

Eight Wallenberg Scholars appointed to the University of Gothenburg


The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation has appointed eight researchers at the University of Gothenburg as Wallenberg Scholars. With the programme, the foundation aims to provide researchers with the opportunity for curiosity-driven and long-term research. In total, 118 Wallenberg Scholars at 13 Swedish universities have been granted five-year grants.

The grants amount to up to SEK 18 million each for researchers in theoretical subjects and up to SEK 20 million each for researchers in experimental subjects.

“It is very pleasing that our researchers are awarded these prestigious research grants,” says Vice-Chancellor Malin Broberg. “The research funding is a recognition of both the individuals' achievements and the university and provides the conditions for conducting world-class research in the long term.”

At the University of Gothenburg, there are now a total of eight Wallenberg Scholars. Fredrik Bäckhed, Henrik Zetterberg, Thomas Nyström, Maria Falkenberg, Richard Neutze, and Andrew Ewing have previously been appointed as Scholars. They have now competed again and once again been granted funding. Read about their research at the bottom of this page.

They’re now joined by Ruth Palmer and Johan Åkerman, who today have been awarded the research grant for the first time. Below, you can read more about their research.

Ruth Palmer: The significance of ALK receptor in the development of various cancer types

Professor Ruth Palmer
Professor Ruth Palmer
Photo: Johan Wingborg

As a Wallenberg Scholar, Ruth Palmer aims to understand ALK signaling in developmental and disease contexts. Malfunctioning ALK activation leads to multiple cancer forms, one of which is the childhood cancer neuroblastoma.

A cell's behavior is governed by signals from both local and distant parts of the body. These signals are detected by receptor proteins, such as receptor tyrosine kinases, present on the surface of each cell. Receptors relay the message through a cascade of signals into the cell, leading to changes in its behavior and identity. One of these receptors is ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase), which plays a crucial role in developmental processes in fruit flies, zebrafish, and mice. In humans, it is known that uncontrolled activation of the ALK receptor leads to various types of cancer, including childhood neuroblastoma and lung cancer. By increasing our understanding of the molecular mechanisms that involve ALK, Ruth Palmer and colleagues have been able to contribute to better treatment for these types of cancer.

“Neuroblastoma accounts for 15 percent of childhood cancer mortality today. There are relatively few genetic mutations in neuroblastoma, however, the gene encoding the ALK receptor is mutated in approximately ten percent of cases, a figure that rises in children who relapse,” says Ruth Palmer.

New drugs for children diagnosed with neuroblastoma

Results from Ruth Palmer's research group have contributed to the introduction of new drugs that inhibit the activity of ALK, providing new treatment options for pediatric oncologists treating children with neuroblastoma. Another goal of the research is to explore how these medicines can be made more effective, for example by combination with other inhibitors. The group uses genetically modified models of neuroblastoma, in mice as well as in the fruit fly as research models. These models are important to understand which proteins interact with ALK, how ALK activity reprograms cell function, and where ALK is active during development. These animal models are combined with in-depth analyses and modifications of DNA, RNA, and proteins that identify important underlying molecular events.

“One long term goal is to develop proteomics based assays that will identify ALK activity from tumor samples from patients with neuroblastoma. This would provide a clinically useful complement to todays sophisticated genetic analyses. This is important, as in many primary neuroblastoma cases, the treating doctors do not know which signaling activities drive the disease,” says Ruth Palmer.

Johan Åkerman’s machines will provide the best solution to difficult problems 

Professor Johan Åkerman
Professor Johan Åkerman
Photo: Markus Marcetic

The travelling salesman problem is a classic optimisation problem that involves finding the shortest route for a travelling salesman between a number of different cities. The problem is a so-called combinatorial optimisation problem that is characterised by the fact that it very quickly becomes impossible to solve when the number of parts to be optimised increases. A salesman who wants to visit 5 cities can do so in 12 different ways, but if he wants to visit 21 cities, there are 1018 different ways to do so. If it takes one second to measure the length of one such distance, even the age of the universe would not be enough to go through all of them.

Breaking encryption

Another equally difficult problem is finding the prime factors of very large integers, which is the basis of all public encryption protocols. Encryption can be broken if you can find out what the prime numbers are.

Today, enormous resources are spent on quantum computers to solve such combinatorial optimisation problems, but building a useful quantum computer is still very difficult.

“Therefore, I and other researchers have looked into computing with physical systems that exploit their inherent parallel properties. Networks of interacting oscillators can solve a wide range of combinatorial optimisation problems as efficiently as quantum computers,” says Johan Åkerman, professor of experimental physics at the Department of Physics.

Two different Ising machines

In these networks, called Ising machines for historical reasons, all oscillators interact with each other and synchronise with their neighbours either in phase or in antiphase. By controlling whether their coupling is in phase or out of phase, and by controlling how strongly the different oscillators couple to each other, the network will try to find the state in which all oscillators couple as optimally as possible to their neighbours. The final state is precisely the solution to the combinatorial problem defined by the different coupling strengths.

Johan Åkerman wants to use two different ways to build Ising machines. The first machine is based on his world-leading research on large networks of spin-Hall nano-oscillators. The second is based on the researchers' recent findings on how spin-wave pulses can serve as building blocks for an Ising machine. The research team then studies the Ising machines with two unique spin-wave microscopes that can measure the individual state of each node in the Ising machine.

“These two Ising machines can become much more powerful. We hope to give Sweden a leading position in the new computing technology,” says Johan Åkerman.

By Elin Lindström, Olof Lönnehed & Ulrika Lundin

More information about the other six Wallenberg Scholars at the University of Gothenburg.