A long-expected lecture on the wonderful world of blood vessels

18 October 2022

Christer Betsholtz

Christer Betsholtz, Professor of Vascular and Tumour Biology, received the 2020 Olof Rudbeck Award

At this year’s Olof Rudbeck Day on 21 October, prominent researchers will present current knowledge under the theme: “When the brain no longer complies – is it dementia?” The award winner for whom the audience has had to wait for the longest is Christer Betsholtz, Professor of Vascular and Tumour Biology at Uppsala University.

He was awarded the 2020 Olof Rudbeck Award, for his pioneering research on how blood vessels form and function. Christer and his research group have produced a detailed molecular map of the cells that make up the brain’s blood vessels and the functions of the vital so-called blood-brain barrier, which has previously been incomplete. 

“The blood-brain barrier is very different from the rest of the body’s blood vessel system,” says Christer. “A healthy blood-brain barrier is a prerequisite for a functioning brain, but a malfunctioning blood-brain barrier is the cause of many, perhaps most, brain diseases. 

“To protect the brain from dangerous substances, the blood-brain barrier strictly limits, like a barrier, which substances can pass through the blood vessel wall and into the brain. That can make it difficult to get drugs across the blood-brain barrier and into the brain, a challenge, for example, in cancer treatment.”

Explorers in the world of biology

Curiosity and the desire to understand how things are connected have been driving forces for Christer throughout his life. As a child, he was interested in nature. When Christer studied medicine in Uppsala, he had the early desire to take a break from his studies to delve into a basic research problem, which he did and then remained. Today Christer holds two professorships at Uppsala University and Karolinska Hospital. 

“As researchers, we can be compared to the explorers of the past, who travelled to unknown places that no one had visited before, and brought new things back home with them. We are explorers in the world of biology with our methods and magnifying glasses. We don’t have to travel very far but we travel deep into the wonderful world of blood vessels, and we have already understood that there is so much more to them than just the tubes that carry blood.” 

New cutting-edge technology

In this year’s Olof Rudbeck Lecture, Christer will talk about how his research team has used a relatively new technique called "single-cell RNA sequencing". 

“I like to make an analogy: If you want to find out how a car works, you disassemble it into all its parts, analyse each one, and then put it back together to see the whole and how it works. That’s exactly what we do. We take each cell apart and sequence the mRNA molecules. We can then use advanced computer programs to see and group the cells into different types. 

“The technology allows us to build up a huge knowledge base that will eventually become highly accurate maps of just every cell and what genes they express in the blood vessels. I believe that the body of knowledge we build will be crucial for diseases and their treatments in the future.”

Olof Rudbeck Award 2020

After the Covid pandemic and two years of waiting, the audience will now listen to Christer Betsholtz’s lecture “Blodkärlens underbara värld – så mycket mer än kroppens rörmokeri” (“The Wonderful World of Blood Vessels – So Much More Than the Body’s Plumbing”). 

“The Olof Rudbeck Award means a lot to me. It’s a nice recognition from Upsala Läkareförening (the Upsala Medical Association) and the Disciplinary Domain of Medicine and Pharmacy at Uppsala University that our research is important. I hope the day will be enjoyable and that everyone who attends will feel that science is fun and important!”