At the start of 2017, the University and Novo Nordisk announced a landmark research collaboration focused on type 2 diabetes. To facilitate the collaboration, Novo Nordisk are also investing in a new research centre to be hosted on Old Road Campus. We speak to James Johnson, the new head of the Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford.
Tell us about yourself and why you took this role.
I’m from Canada, where I obtained my PhD at the University of Alberta before moving to the United States for post-doctoral training at Washington University in St. Louis. In 2004, I returned to Canada to start a faculty position at the University of British Columbia, eventually being promoted through the ranks to Full Professor in 2014. The same year, I started a sabbatical year in Oxford, very much enjoying the city and its vibrant research culture. When I was contacted about a possible role in establishing and leading a new research centre in Oxford, together with Novo Nordisk, a company I have worked with and respect, I jumped at the opportunity. I view this role as a chance to build a truly unique academic-industry hybrid and to conduct innovative research to discover new therapeutic targets in type 2 diabetes. I’m excited to be the new Site Head of the Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford and a VP at Novo Nordisk. I am also proud to be a Visiting Professor and Senior Fellow at Harris-Manchester College.
Can you tell us about the Novo Nordisk Oxford University alliance and why in your opinion it’s innovative?
With the Strategic Alliance, the University of Oxford and Novo Nordisk are trying to create a unique and innovative approach to drug target discovery. My vision is for an academic-industry hybrid that incorporates the best practices of pharma with the best practices of university research. The Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford will have the look and feel of an academic department, with Principal Investigators leading teams of trainees and staff, who themselves drive research from creative ideas and questions. I believe the ‘University model’ for discovery research has significant benefits. At the same time, I hope we can adopt some of the patience, rigour and focus that pharma companies can often exhibit in their research programs.
How is this Alliance of strategic importance for Novo Nordisk and what would be a fruitful outcome?
Novo Nordisk is increasingly aiming to leverage global expertise. Oxford is one of the top universities in the world and has historical strengths in diabetes and metabolism research, especially in the areas of genetics, big data and physiology. Strategically, Novo Nordisk wants to collaborate with top scientists to advance the field. In addition to the new knowledge generated and published to advance type 2 diabetes research and our contribution to the training of the next generation of diabetes researchers, I hope that this strategic alliance will result in the identification of new therapeutic targets that can be developed into medicines, which can then make a difference in the lives of patients with diabetes. I have great confidence that this alliance will be fruitful. Novo Nordisk already has a more than 20 year track record of fruitful engagement with Oxford, including contributing to the establishment of the Oxford Centre for Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism and the Novo Nordisk Fellowship program (the company’s largest external fellowship investment).
What opportunities do you hope to pursue with Oxford University and how do you see this Alliance contributing to Oxfords research?
In a general sense, this is an opportunity to build a new model of collaboration. Specifically, there are so many scientific opportunities to collaborate within Oxford that I couldn’t possibly list them here. We are very excited to get started.
Tell us about the techniques and expertise you hope to have at the Novo Nordisk Oxford site.
We are building a multi-disciplinary team of scientists that will employ cutting-edge technologies to make fundamental discoveries aimed at uncovering new therapeutic targets for type 2 diabetes. We are establishing departments with technical expertise in discovery bioinformatics, single-cell sequencing, CRISPR screening, stem cell engineering, high-throughput imaging, electrophysiology, in vivo integrated physiology, pathology, and mass-spec-based proteomics. Our departments cover some of the most important biological areas in type 2 diabetes, including islet biology with a focus on insulin secretion and beta-cell health, liver biology with a focus on lipid accumulation, as well as insulin action multiple tissues including liver, muscle, fat and vasculature. Combined with the tremendous research programs already in Oxford, the addition of these new laboratories will maintain Oxford’s position as one of the world’s leading locations for diabetes research.
What are you most looking forward to?
I think I am most looking forward to the people and to fostering a creative and inclusive research institute. I firmly believe that creativity and diversity are absolute requirements for discovery in the current scientific age.
How can researchers and those who would wish to collaborate find out more information or get in touch?
Some information can be found on a webpage hosted by the Medical Sciences Division's Business Development team. People are welcome to reach out to me directly with general queries, or to the Scientific Department Heads with questions about specific topic. We are very eager to collaborate and make the most of this alliance.