Poojitha Ojamies' dissertation provides valuable insights on treating cancer

M.Sc. Poojitha Ojamie’s thesis entitled "Clonal evolution and heterogeneity of cancer in the context of individualized medicine” focuses on developing sequencing and bioinformatics methods to study spatial and temporal tumor heterogeneity and evolution of cancer subclones. Her doctoral dissertation will be publically examined on 24 August, with the permission of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Helsinki.

Poojitha Ojamies graduated from the Computer Science Department of the University of Helsinki in 2012 having bioinformatics as her major subject. Already a year before, in 2011, she received a highly competitive FIMM-EMBL PhD student position and started at the rotation programme. After the rotation period, she decided to start her PhD project in the group of Professor Olli Kallioniemi. The thesis has been co-supervised by Dr. Maija Wolf.

The overall goal of Poojitha’s thesis was to comprehensively investigate cancer evolution and heterogeneity as well as understand drug responses at a subclone level in the context of individualised cancer treatment. Her thesis project is part of FIMM’s “Individualised systems medicine in cancer” Grand Challenge programme.

Subclones present at low-frequency at diagnosis can lead to relapse or seeding of distant metastatic clones, and thus it would be very important to detect also the rare subclones early on.

- Poojitha Ojamies

Poojitha’s PhD thesis consists of three articles, all of which have already been published. All are focused on clonal architecture and its impact on treatment response, using acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and renal cancer as models.

Studying cancer subclones has been a very trendy topic for the past few years and there is a lot of competition. Looking back, it is easy to see that we should have tried to publish some of our results faster. My personal motto in science has been to “work hard and fail fast”.

In the first two publications of the thesis, Poojitha utilised exome sequencing combined with ultra-deep amplicon sequencing in AML patient samples. These methods enabled her to monitor patients’ response to different therapies at subclone level and to study the genetic heterogeneity between different bone marrow compartments. In the third paper, Poojitha studied genomic heterogeneity in renal cell carcinoma.

We noticed that patient response to therapy is variable at the subclone level and therefore it’s very important to monitor how these subclones respond to therapy. By studying the impact of treatment on subclones and vice versa, we can redefine our personalised therapy and drug development strategies to target clonal evolution and heterogeneity. We are now starting to piece together the puzzle of cancer.

During her thesis project, Poojitha has also found time to develop her soft skills by organising startup events and working with health-based companies and public organisations.

Her networking skills proved out to be very valuable when she started looking for a new job. Currently she is working as Exploratory Scientist at BenevolentAI, a London based AI company where she leads drug discovery programs and works with AI experts to develop new algorithms and models to find drugs to treat diseases.

Poojitha encourages her fellow PhD students to consider career options outside academia and truly appreciates the support and career mentoring she has received from her supervisors, the previous FIMM research training coordinator Gretchen Repasky and many FIMM PIs.

Poojitha N Ojamies will defend the doctoral dissertation entitled "Clonal evolution and heterogeneity of cancer in the context of individualized medicine" in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki, on 24 August 2018 at 12:00. The public examination will take place at the following address: Lecture Hall 2, Haartman Institute, at Haartmaninkatu 3. Dr. Nicholas McGranahan, University College of London, will serve as the opponent and Professor Kimmo Porkka as the custos.

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service.