Gratitude spurs Professor Vincenzo Cerullo to develop a cure for cancer

20.5.2019
How can we trick the immune system into seeing tumours as infections? This is a question on the mind of Vincenzo Cerullo, a recently appointed professor at the University of Helsinki.

Not many researchers consider filling out a funding application a high point in their career. However, for Vincenzo Cerullo, who specialises in pharmacy, an application submitted to the European Research Council in 2011 turned out to be a watershed in his. He went from being a researcher working on a weekly budget of a couple of hundred euros to the founder of a million-euro company.

This all took place despite Cerullo’s insistence that he actually abhors writing.

“Under pressure, most of us have it in ourselves to come up with something new. This is why a duty such as filling out an ERC funding application can turn into an entirely new kind of cancer drug.”

Cerullo, who started working this year as professor of pharmacy at the University, offers a cup of espresso in his office on Viikki Campus. The week before he was vacationing with his family in Italy, his country of birth. Soon, he’s about to pop into the laboratory to pay a visit to his research group, or ‘other family’.

However, before that he finds the time to talk about how a Neapolitan student ended up as an entrepreneur and eventually also a professor in Viikki.

Support for our defences

Cerullo moved to Finland in 2009, working first in a cancer research group headed by Akseli Hemminki.

In Hemminki’s group, Cerullo contributed to developing cancer therapies based on oncolytic viruses. Their aim is to genetically modify common cold viruses to attack malignant tumours, which makes them weaker and eventually destroys them.

Just as it does in the case of common cold, the human immune system strives to destroy oncolytic viruses. Therefore, oncolytic viruses are often administered to patients when cancer treatments have made their immune system weaker.

Alongside his work, Cerullo began formulating a new kind of research question. What if you could employ the immune system even more effectively?

A simple idea

In its funding application round of 2011, the European Research Council was looking for novel ideas.

Suddenly, the penny dropped for Cerullo, who was struggling with his application. Maybe viruses could be disguised to resemble cancerous tumours, making the immune system associate viruses and tumours with each other and attack them both.

“Our body is extremely effective in identifying and eliminating infections, but not so much tumours. What if we could induce the system to perceive tumours as infections?”

Technically, Cerullo’s idea is easy to put into practice. Viruses carry a negative electric charge, whereas it is easy to positively charge peptide threads extracted from tumours, thus attaching them to each other without genetic modification.

The technique is very promising. The peptide threads connected to viruses originate in the patient’s tumour. For patients, this means treatment that is personalised, simple and inexpensive.

Combining peptides with oncolytic viruses results in a sort of tandem-charge missile where the virus first attacks the tumour, after which the immune system attacks both the virus and tumour.

In the case of leukaemia, for example, the technique is of no use, since the viruses must be administered directly into the tumour: elsewhere in the body they would only end up in the liver, which would make short work of them. Neither does the method work on brain tumours, as the viral infection causes swelling, for which there is no space inside the skull.

Against most cancer types, however, the therapy may work well.

Becoming a business founder

Cerullo’s idea drew acclaim for its originality, but no ERC funding was forthcoming.

“I only had an idea, but no empiric findings to back me up,” Cerullo reminisces.

The Faculty of Pharmacy met him halfway and awarded €20,000 for preliminary experimentation. In the experiments, the idea proved functional, after which Cerullo was advised to contact Helsinki Innovation Services, a company owned by the University of Helsinki.

“They believed in me before the rest of the scientific community,” Cerullo recalls fondly.

With the help of the company, Cerullo established a business called Valo Therapeutics. In five years, Valo has grown into a venture with a turnover of several million euros. Its facilities are located on Viikinkaari opposite Cerullo’s current workplace, the Faculty of Pharmacy.

These days, Valo coordinates its research activities independently. The leap from animal testing to clinical patient trials is expected to be made already this year.

“It’s been fascinating to see the passion with which research is conducted in the private sector. At the University, things are contemplated and tested, while in the business world the only thing that matters is the result: either the treatment works or it doesn’t.“

A decade in Finland

Back in the day, a young student of biochemistry was inspired by his professor’s research career and ended up at a laboratory already in his second year of studies.

“I started by washing research equipment. I’ve gone through all the positions possible in a research group,” Cerullo recalls.

From Italy, Cerullo first relocated to the United States, where he met his future Finnish wife, with whom he moved to Finland. He has now been working at the University of Helsinki for ten years.

“Actually, I hate change! I’d like every single day to be the same as the day before,” Cerullo chuckles.

Rejecting an offer for a professorship at the University of Texas at Austin a couple of years ago was not difficult.

“I very much like living in Finland. In many ways, this is my ideal society, where every individual relies on their personal merits without resorting to family connections or vast wealth. In the US, achieving a similar quality of life would require a fortune of millions.”

Does a Neapolitan ever miss the scenery and delicacies of his native Italy?

“Naples is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Whenever I visit Italy, I’m always surprised by the deliciousness of the food,” Cerullo admits.

Cerullo points out that Finland has strengths of its own: things work smoothly and agreements hold.

“Thanks to my knowledge of the alternatives, I’m much more excited about Finland than most Finns.”

Not even the weather presents a problem. Cerullo would be happy to spend all his hours in the laboratory.

“You shouldn’t even ask me about the weather, as I most likely haven’t given it a thought.”

Miracles do happen

If Valo’s clinical trials succeed and the patented therapy becomes popular, Cerullo may yet gain that fortune. However, his motivation stems from something quite different than yearning for riches, namely gratitude. A novel form of treatment would be a way of thanking society.

Cerullo’s son developed cancer when he was only one.

“It was absolutely terrifying to visit the cancer ward for small children. I once noted to a physician that this must be Hell,” Cerullo says.

He still remembers the doctor’s response: “Far from it. This is one of the few places where miracles still happen.” Cerullo’s son got better and is now a healthy 9-year-old schoolboy.

The experience reinforced Cerullo’s faith in Finland and Finnish healthcare.

“I still find it hard to believe how good and competent the treatment was that we received through the public healthcare system, without breaking the bank to boot.”

Cerullo’s laboratory is already working on a new innovation which would turn a familiar vaccine into a new form of treatment after laboratory processing, making our immune system even more effective at attacking tumours.

“By employing our technique, the tetanus vaccine could be developed into a cancer vaccine,” the professor explains.

The article was originally published in Finnish in the Y/04/19 issue of Yliopisto-lehti.