National flagship project iCAN receives 14 million euro grant to promote development of personalized treatments for cancer
The cancer research project iCAN has received a grant of 14 million euros from the Academy of Finland for its second term. Coordinated by the University of Helsinki and HUS Helsinki University Hospital, iCAN research combines digital health and precision cancer medicine in a novel way.

The iCAN digital precision cancer medicine flagship aims for breakthrough discoveries to advance personalized cancer diagnosis and treatment. A large pan-cancer research project, with currently 15 subprojects and over 200 cancer researchers, forms the core of the flagship.

–  The national flagship projects combine scientific excellence and collaboration with the society and companies, thus providing broad impact. The iCAN flaghsip connects several important topical themes: cancer diagnostics and treatment, data, patient participation and drug development. The flagship is an important strategic investment for the University of Helsinki, notes Vice Rector Paula Eerola, also acting as the Chair of iCAN Steering Board.

How do cancer and healthy cells interact?

iCAN aims to create a more accurate picture of how cancer development over time is dependent on interaction with the healthy cells and tissues of the body, including the immune system.

– Our research aims to identify links between particular changes in tumors with changes in its surrounding healthy cells microenvironment and longer term health events of the patient. The goal is to identify new targets for precision diagnostics and treatment, says iCAN Executive Officer, professor Tomi Mäkelä.

The project aims to collect and analyze an exceptionally large amount of tumor samples from a broad variety of different cancer types. The goal is to perform molecular profiling for 15,000 samples by the end of 2026. Samples are collected from cancer patients who have submitted a biobank consent.

Towards a more detailed picture of cancer with molecular profiling

Molecular profiling is an emerging area in the development of precision cancer medicine. It includes molecular level analysis of the tumor and its surrounding healthy cells, such as genetic, RNA and immune-related data, using digital pathology and artificial intelligence.

The iCAN research combines molecular profiling data with health events of the patient, going back several years from the time of the diagnosis. The use of health data is enabled by the unique Finnish health registries and digital health systems, and particularly the HUS data lake. This adds up to huge amounts of data, which are mined using machine learning and AI.

Broad, multidisciplinary partnerships – also with patients

The flagship is executed as a partnership between academic research, healthcare system, companies and patients. The active participation of patients at all levels is a key element of the flagship, ensuring impact and benefits to the patients. Currently the project encompasses all HUS units treating cancer. An important objective for the second term is expanding activities nationally as part of the Finnish National Cancer Centre FICAN.

iCAN has been part of the Academy of Finland’s flagship programme since 2019. The Academy provides funding for the second term (2022-2026) in two batches, where the first grant is 14 million euros, and the total funding based on current Academy of Finland mandate is not to exceed ca. 15 million euros. In the first term (2019-22), the Academy granted iCAN 11 million euros. In addition, iCAN receives significant funding from the University of Helsinki and HUS and through company partnerships.  

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