What are your research topics?
Ever since I moved from industry to the University in 2010, I have focused my research on understanding the link between the properties and functionalities of novel drug formulations, nanomedicines in particular.
Nanomedicines are fascinating because they can be used to target pharmaceutical agents to a specific tissue or location, such as malignant tumours. This reduces the adverse effects of drugs. Nanomedicines are also used to solve problems related to delivering drugs to tissues that are difficult to access, including the brain and the eyes.
Then again, while nanotechnology has enabled the development of many promising drug vehicles, only 1% of the drugs that have been granted marketing authorisation in the past 25 years can be classified as nanomedicines. The slow transition of nanomedicines from research to production is due to, among other factors, the extreme difficulty of investigating their interaction with different biological tissues.
In fact, this is connected to another particular research interest of mine. Measuring equipment based on fluorescence is commonly used in life sciences. However, their use is complicated by the fact that they can affect the properties or functioning of the subject being examined. My aim is to develop and study new real-time measuring platforms that do not employ such fluorescent substances. They can be used to monitor and measure how nanomedicines interact with the cell surface, how effectively the drug is transmitted into the cell and how a layer of protein is formed on the surface of the nanomedicine when the drug is administered into the circulation.
Based on this research, I intend to develop ways of obtaining new and supplementary information to complement methods currently widely used in life sciences. This would enable us to better understand the links between the properties and functionalities of nanomedicines.
Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?
I envision my research helping us understand how to design and manufacture exactly the right kind of very effective nanomedicines that can be targeted precisely at a specific tissue or part of the body. This would make it possible to treat a wide range of challenging diseases and patients.
Increased understanding would also help to accelerate the transition of nanomedicines from research to use. Furthermore, the new research methods I am developing would, at their best, reduce the need for animal testing in the development of new nanomedicines.
What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?
I am participating in a very interesting Business Finland Co-Innovation project aimed at investigating and developing new kinds of drug carriers. We are studying whether extracellular vesicles can be utilised in the treatment and diagnostics of progressive diseases for which there are no curative therapies. Extracellular vesicles are a type of natural nanoparticles that occur in many different tissues of the body.
The cross-disciplinary nature of the consortium has enabled the study and discovery of entirely new things and properties. Moreover, the consortium is very open to new measuring techniques and platforms. Up until now, there have been very few well-functioning methods available for studying extracellular vesicles. The consortium has given a chance for the methods I have developed to demonstrate their functionality, and they have in fact received praise within the community. This kind of cooperation really inspires me to keep focusing on my chosen research topics and boosts the societal impact of my research.
I am also inspired by the partnership I just initiated with Professor Pasi Virta from the University of Turku relating to spherical nucleic acid carriers. They are very small nanosized nucleic acid carriers, which I consider to hold remarkable potential for revolutionising the treatment of various difficult diseases, including prostate and breast cancer.
What do you expect from the collaboration and research network FinPharma?
FinPharma provides excellent opportunities to develop education and research in the field of pharmacy in Finland. Having all Finnish universities involved in the training of professionals in the field and conducting pharmaceutical research under the same network can only lead to increasingly close collaboration. This enables us to jointly offer world-class education and research collaboration, which will also improve the chances of acquiring both national and international research funding.
My work is equally divided between the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Helsinki and Åbo Akademi University. In the future, my goal is for anyone studying pharmacy at the University of Helsinki who wants to improve their Swedish skills to have the opportunity to complete courses at Åbo Akademi University. Correspondingly, Swedish-language students from Åbo Akademi University would be able to improve their Finnish by taking courses at the University of Helsinki or the University of Eastern Finland.
And I believe that my FinPharma professorship will benefit the training of Swedish-speaking people, and perhaps also those interested in Swedish, in the field – regardless of whether they are studying at Åbo Akademi University, the University of Helsinki or the University of Eastern Finland.
I also expect FinPharma to provide students with the opportunity to take as many different courses as possible at all three universities, since there is already a certain degree of specialisation between the institutions. This would give students the chance to specialise in their chosen field of pharmacy, independent of their location.
Tapani Viitala began serving as the professor of novel drug formulations in the beginning of September. His work is divided equally between Åbo Akademi University and the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Helsinki.