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New associate professor Vincenzo Cerullo: Personalized drugs are on the way

Vincenzo Cerullo

Vincenzo Cerullo started in the beginning of September as a tenure track associate professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy. He focuses on personalized drugs – drugs that work only for a specific tumor in a specific patient.

Vincenzo Cerullo is the newest professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy. He begun as a pharmacist and wrote his thesis on biotechnology. Now he's focusing on personalized drugs – drugs that work only for a specific tumor of the patient they are made for. All this can happen with the help of viruses.

– Evolution made viruses a good tool. They talk to the immune system, so we try to make viruses say what we want. We can for example make viruses target certain cell types in tumors, Vincenzo Cerullo explains.

It all started during his years in the U.S.A. Cerullo worked in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics in the Baylor College of Medicine. The researchers tried to find out how to to replace defected genes with the help of adenoviruses.

In the system called the helper-dependent adenoviral vectors the virus genome is first depleted of all viral genes. Then they are replaced with the functioning version of the gene that needs repairing. The virus enters the cell and releases the gene inside.

If things go well, the infected cells can express that gene for all their life. One of the great advantages of this system is that the the gene does not integrate in the cell’s genome. That's why there is no risk for insertional mutagenesis where the original DNA could change because of the inserted and integrated repair gene.

Vincenzo Cerullo is very exited about his experience in the U.S.A. His eyes are smiling when he tells that there are baboons treated with this virus eight years ago still expressing high levels of the gene that the researchers put in their liver with the helper-dependent adenovirus. This approach could solve various monogenic diseases with a single dose.


The immune system kicks in

The only problem with the helper-dependent adenoviral vectors is that the amounts of the adenoviruses injected to the blood stream need to be very high to achieve a therapeutic dose. That kind of doses invariably turn the immune system on, which then can cause big problems.

– We in our research kind of got stuck with the immune system and felt disappointed. Then I started to think how we could take advantage of the immune system itself. I came to Finland and came across the oncolytic viruses that can selectively kill cancer cells. Then is was finally clear to me that we could use them to turn on the immune system. The virus is, after all, eliminated quite fast by the immune system, but if we we could find a way to disguise the virus as a tumor, we could divert the immune system towards it.

Vincenzo Cerullo explains that tumors are difficult targets.

– They are made of our cells, they are us. Still, I think we now have a good idea how to discriminate tumor cells from our other cells and be able to get at the ones we want.


Teaching is fun!

Vincenzo Cerullo freely admits that he loves teaching.

– I really couldn't think of this job without teaching. I look forward to it as I have had a lot of fun in the past. I have done all the pedagogic courses the University of Helsinki has to offer. They have given me great tools and a different approach as a teacher.

Vincenzo Cerullo moved to the Division of Biopharmaceutics and Pharmacokinetics from Biomedicum.

– The migration was very easy, because the head of the division, Marjo Yliperttula, has supported me tremendously since my arrival. And I'm also grateful to the people that have joined my research group. To join the group of a young researcher you need to be courageous and to love challenges. And probably these two qualities will one day make you a great scientist, Cerullo says.

Also student mobility is important to Cerullo. Already as postdoctoral researcher in Biomedicum Vincenzo Cerullo organized the postdoctoral training of his two younger colleagues in two of the most prestigious research groups in Texas Medical Center in Houston, U.S.A..

– I, too, am so grateful to all the researchers that I have met in Italy, U.S.A, Finland and around the world for the contribution to my own education, Vincenzo Cerullo thanks warmly.


More information in English

As a non-Finnish speaker Vincenzo Cerullo sometimes feels excluded of the university's information stream. English is the common language in many research groups but the bulk of the general information still comes in Finnish.

– If the university aims to be among the best universities in the world, we should open it more. That includes language. It really doesn't matter if English is something else that perfect. There are only a few native English speakers here, and they probably already have got used to other people mishandling their language, Vincenzo Cerullo grins.

text and photo: Elina Raukko



Vincenzo Cerullo in the University of Helsinki research database Tuhat

Faculty of Pharmacy, Division of Biopharmaceutics and Pharmacokinetics

The American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy: New investigator of the month