40-year-old associate professor is this year's recipient of the faculty's talent award

Gene therapy is really starting to prove its worth in health science research. So is Associate Professor Rasmus Bak from the Department of Biomedicine, who is to receive the Skou Award 2023.

Can CRISPR improve the treatment of cancer and genetic diseases? This is one of the questions that associate professor Rasmus O. Bak, from the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University, is trying to answer. Photo: Simon Byrial Fischel

Just before our interview this morning, Associate Professor Rasmus Bak received an email from an American woman whose daughter suffers from a rare blood disorder. The woman asked if there is a CRISPR technique that can help.

Like many others who conduct research into gene therapy, Rasmus Bak receives many mails like this from people all over the world. Often parents who are desperately looking for hope in gene technology.

"It's heartbreaking. My reply is usually that there is no treatment yet. And as far as rare diseases go, it’ll take a long time before a treatment is found. Because if it's not financially viable, it's not worth the while for the pharmaceutical industry – even though the potential might be there," he says.

The inquiries say something about the world’s expectations of gene therapy. The field is developing rapidly, and Rasmus Bak’s contribution is one of the reasons why he is this year’s winner of the Skou award.

Next to his desk in his office hangs a poster of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna who received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors.

Rasmus Bak calls them "My world's rock stars".

Even though it was only 11 years ago that the two women on the wall discovered that they could reprogramme CRISPR and use this technology to change genes under controlled conditions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to approve the first treatment based on this technology already this year.

"This means 2023 could be a special year for CRISPR," says Ramus Bak, who has a small stake in development of the treatment of the disease sickle cell anaemia, which is likely to be approved in the United States soon. During his postdoc at Stanford University, he contributed to a study in 2015 which showed that chemical modifications to the “GPS molecule” of the CRISPR system are essential for effective gene therapy.

Has an eye for good teaching

But it is not only his mission to develop new genetic technologies as treatment that gives Rasmus Bak the talent award and the 100,000 DKK that comes with it.

In his recommendation for the Skou award, Department Head Thomas G. Jensen wrote that Rasmus Bak is an extraordinary researcher and a role model, who is a very talented innovator, communicator and teacher. And that his discoveries have far-reaching potential in the wave of gene therapy.

Despite his relatively young age of just 40 years, Rasmus Bak already has a huge collection of awards and prizes on his mantelpiece. When he is presented with the Skou award on 6 October, he will be particularly pleased that the award is a tribute from Aarhus University – his scientific birthplace. The award is named after Jens Christian Skou, who was a strong advocate of independent basic research. This focus is very much in line with the CRISPR field, which began with the study of small lactic acid bacteria.

Perhaps he will tell you more about this at the award ceremony, which is open to everyone. It takes place on 6 October 13:00-14:30 in the Steno Museum.


Until then, you can learn more about Ramus Bak by reading his answers to the 12 questions below:


Six questions for Rasmus the researcher

What makes you a good researcher?
- I've never seen myself as highly talented, but I'm a hard worker and I know how important that is. Being a researcher is like being an elite athlete in a competition that is about publications, research grants and patents. You have to train by putting in a lot of hours. This hasn't been a problem because it's incredibly exciting, but of course it takes time away from other things, so it has to be your hobby as well.

When do you look forward to coming to work?
- I love meeting talented, committed people and seeing their passion. I’ve just finished teaching a Summer School programme on CRISPR technology, and the students came up to me with sparkling eyes, saying that this is the coolest thing ever – I really enjoy that.

Alongside my job at AU, I’ve started a biotech company with two other researchers. This brings a different dimension to research because we work within a different framework and purpose than the university. I really appreciate being part of that world as well. Building a company from scratch and seeing where it takes you.

When don't you feel like going to work?
- I really have to pull myself together for some administrative tasks. When I'm struggling with our two-factor authentication system, or when IT is running slow, it can be a very long day. But it’s like that in all workplaces. That's also what it's like to be an athlete – sometimes it rains when you need to train.

What would you change if you were the rector of AU?
- I’d improve conditions for PhD students. There’s a lot of talk about declining well-being, and Covid certainly didn’t help. I think we’ve one of the toughest PhD degrees in the world because it's short and full of demands, some of which may seem unreasonable. For example, the requirement for a research stay abroad - or a change of research environment, as it’s called. This is one of the things I personally learned most from, but it has to be under the right circumstances, and I think making it a requirement is a lack of respect for diversity. People are different and won’t necessarily be able to change jobs for a period of time, even though it’s rewarding. PhD students have to conduct research, publish brilliant articles, teach, take courses and write a dissertation – you shouldn’t force a compulsory move on a student under such work pressure.

What would you like to be better at?
- Saying no to things that are rationally at the bottom of my priority list. You get lots of offers, and you feel semi-obligated to accept many of them. I had a very wise colleague at AIAS where I was a fellow for three years – she said this about stress management: once you’ve learned to say no to things, the next thing you have to learn is to withdraw from commitments you have already made. I'm not quite there yet.

What is your dream career? 
- Setting up a successful biotech company that sends a product to market could be fun. Not many people get to do that. And I also hope to make a positive contribution to the field of gene therapy and help educate a lot of talented students here at AU.


Six questions about Rasmus the person

What was your first job?
- In a hot dog stand at Himmerland golf club.

What would you be if you weren't a researcher?
- I’ve no idea. When I started university, I think I wanted to be an upper secondary school teacher. I chose nanotechnology and somewhat unexpectedly fell in love with molecular biology. Then I steered my education completely in that direction.

What do you do in your leisure time?
- I spend time with friends and family and try to get some exercise every now and then. I've taught myself to play the piano and the guitar, and I try to keep that up as well.

What makes you happy?
- My children. They have an amazing sense of humour.

What makes you angry?
- Ingratitude and indolence. When people don't want to make an effort. I can’t really explain why it annoys me so much, but if you don't want to make an effort, then don't start in the first place. However, I don’t get angry easily - I think I’m rather mild tempered.

What is your favourite place in the world?
- Stanford University. We’ve just been over there revisiting the old neighbourhood where we lived for three years when I was postdoc. There's this one place on campus that I absolutely love: Memorial Court in the old part of the university. It’s an incredibly beautiful and solemn place, with an atmosphere exuding scientific immersion and great achievement.


About Rasmus Otkjær Bak

  • 40 years old
  • Associate professor at the Department of Biomedicine
  • Born in Farsø in Northern Jutland, a graduate from Vesthimmerlands Gymnasium (sixth-form college), has a Master's degree in nanotechnology from AU.
  • PhD student in Jacob Giehm Mikkelsen's laboratory, where he conducted research into new methods for correcting genetic errors. 
  • Has had a three-year research stay as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University, USA.
  • Lives in Brabrand with his wife, Louise, who is a sociologist. The couple have two children aged 5 and 10.
  • Together with Professor Martin Roelsgaard and former postdoc Anders Laustsen, he founded the biotech company UNIKUM Therapeutics in 2020.


About the Jens Christian Skou award

The Skou award is given annually to a researcher in the field of health science who is extraordinarily talented within his or her field of research, and who is both creative and productive.

The award is named after Jens Christian Skou, who received the Nobel Prize in 1997 and is still a source of inspiration for younger researchers. The Faculty of Health awards the prize every year around Jens Christian Skou's birthday on 8 October. The prize comes with DKK 100,000, which the recipient can use for his research.

The following researchers at Health have received the Skou award:

Read more about the Jens Chr. Skou award in the article "New award at Health to honour research talents".  


Associate Professor Rasmus O. Bak
Aarhus University, Department of Biomedicine
Mobile: +4593929100
Email: bak@biomed.au.dk

Head of Department and Professor Thomas G. Jensen
Aarhus University, Department of Clinical Medicine
Mobile: +4527782805
Email: thomas@biomed.au.dk