Twenty million euros. That is how much money is spent on cancer research in Meilahti every year. In the Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki alone, there are more than 35 professors and their research groups focused on investigating cancer. This translates into hundreds of researchers whose expertise is also at students’ disposal.
The demand for cancer research is tremendous: more than one-third of all people are diagnosed with cancer at some point of their lives.
“In the future, the number of cancer patients will only continue to grow, as people live to an increasingly old age,” notes Risto Renkonen, dean of the Faculty of Medicine.
Fast and individualised treatment as the goal
Cancer research is among the fields of medical treatment and diagnostics growing the fastest. These days it is known, for example, that malignant tumours are individual. Central to treatment are advances in personalised medicine based on understanding the functioning of cells. Thanks to personalised care, almost two-thirds of cancer patients are cured.
The goal is to shorten the journey of novel therapies from the laboratory to the treatment of patients as much as possible. For instance, the continuous development of drug screening means that an effective combination of drugs can be found more frequently for individual cancer patients.
“Many cancer patients recover fully thanks to increasingly personalised research-based therapy. Ten years ago, such achievements were not always possible,” Renkonen says.
Exceptional nature of Finnish research and treatment
In Helsinki, cancer research has a long history. This disease group has been studied for at least a century, although the methods have changed along the way.
Research and treatments are being advanced by the extraordinary collaboration between the University and the Helsinki University Hospital (the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa). In addition to conducting research, many of the professors serve as physicians at the Helsinki University Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center and other HUS hospitals.
“We have an extensive public healthcare system, and practically all cancer patients in Finland are treated in university hospitals. At the Comprehensive Cancer Center, the annual number is 25,000 patients. The Finnish method is exceptional: such close cooperation, where university hospitals conducting research possess all the available information on patients, is not really practised anywhere else in the world,” says Renkonen.
“The scope of our operations is evidenced by patient numbers, which are of the same size in Helsinki as they are in the largest hospitals of Berlin and Paris, in addition to which nearly half of all medical research carried out in Finland is conducted here,” he goes on.
Helsinki’s attractions: award-winning researchers and a biobank
At the University of Helsinki, research groups are headed by well-known and award-winning researchers, who also attract promising international scholars. Many of them choose Helsinki also on the basis of the patient data available in Finland in electronic form, which facilitates research, as well as the well-functioning infrastructure of a university hospital: the research equipment is state-of-the-art, and the organisation of work is practical.
“Finnish patients also have a very positive attitude towards research, which makes collaboration between researchers and the hospital easy,” Renkonen explains.
Another boon for cancer research in Helsinki is extensive knowledge concerning the Finnish genome and the ability to store samples collected from patients in biobanks.
“The Biobank Act, a progressive piece of legislation enacted in Finland, enables the conduct of several research projects with a single consent given by the patient. Our aim is to compile an extensive bank of clinical specimens, from which researchers can easily mine great quantities of data for analysis,” says Renkonen.
Surprisingly, research also benefits from a Finnish population register dating back all the way to church records from the 17th century. This data can be used to find out about causes of death and the disease heritage of certain families.
“Of course, multidisciplinary expertise in computational methods utilising the latest IT solutions is central to modern top-level research,” Renkonen states.
With computational methods, researchers can, for example, explore the genetic factors underlying susceptibility to cancer in order to convert research results on the molecular level to clinical patient care more effectively and rapidly. The effective use of such methods can reduce the number of patient trials to a fraction of today’s numbers.
Support for cancer research
Sufficient funding will ensure that researchers can concentrate on conducting long-term research. In addition to recruiting researchers, cancer research requires funds for, for example, carrying out drug analyses and procuring data centre space for analysing research results and planning patient care on the basis of research findings.
At the moment, it is not possible to subject each tumour biopsy to personalised drug hypersensitivity testing before making a precise treatment decision for a certain patient. With significant additional investment, this also would become possible. Funds also improve patients’ opportunities to participate in clinical cancer drug trials, which provide information on individual patients’ reactions to new drugs.
Cancer research is funded from the University’s basic funding, as well as by research funding awarded to research groups by, among others, the Academy of Finland and the European Union. Research is also being conducted with donations and grants provided by foundations. The Faculty of Medicine is also seeking research funding increasingly through business and partnership cooperation. In addition, anyone is free to make a donation for research.
Helsinki is worth an investment, since internationally attractive medical expertise in the metropolitan area can also be found outside the University, in the private sector.
“Our researchers concentrate, for example, on how to inhibit the growth of blood vessels in cancer cells: without blood vessels, tumours cannot grow. Another new field is the harnessing of the human immune defence system for cancer therapy through modification,” Renkonen describes.
Nanomedicine is another avenue to new prospects. With nanomedicine, cancer drugs can be delivered in a targeted and precise manner into cancer cells, fundamentally reducing the adverse effects of treatment on the healthy cells in the body.
“The more we know about cancer, the better we are able to treat people,” says Renkonen.
The University of Helsinki invites all those interested in cancer research to support research and the quick application of research results in patient care. Cancer research is one of the spearheading themes of the For the World fundraising campaign. Support us now.