ERC funds pioneering model for medical treatment

Professor Mikko Niemi has received an ERC Consolidator Grant worth two million euros. This enables him to design and test an algorithm for choosing the most suitable cholesterol medicine for each patient.

Professor Mikko Niemi has done research on the gene mutations linked to the response to cholesterol medicine and its side effects since the early 2000s.

He has found a number of gene mutations that affect patient response to statins, lipid-lowering medications, or that increase their muscular side effects.

Partly due to the side effects, as many as 25% of patients stop taking their statin medication even when the drug is prescribed for the long term.

“It can be estimated that globally 20,000 to 30,000 people die from cardiovascular events because they have stopped taking statins,” Niemi says.

A mathematical model for medication

With the ERC Consolidator Grant, Niemi will design a systems pharmacology decision support algorithm which can aid in choosing the most suitable statin for each patient.

”It is a mathematical model that takes into account all the factors that influence which statin to prescribe: the patient’s genotype, other medication, sex, age and weight. The model predicts how each patient will respond to the medication, that is, how it is divided into the liver and muscles, how effective it is, and how high the risk is of side effects,” Niemi states.

He says that designing the algorithm would be impossible without the Consolidator Grant, which ensures the resources for building and testing the model during the next five years.

The systems pharmacology decision support algorithm will be designed based on the data from Niemi’s previous research projects and laboratory experiments on the cellular model. In addition, at the beginning of the project, data from 500 patients starting a statin medication will be gathered to finalise and validate the model.

In the latter half of the 5-year-period, a randomised clinical trial will be carried out in which patients are prescribed statin medication either based on the physician’s own rationale or on the system’s pharmacological model.

“I strongly believe that we are able to build a functioning model. As a result, the patients will tolerate the medication better, and the mortality rate for cardiovascular diseases may lower significantly,” Niemi says.

First in the world

Niemi emphasises that his project is the first systems pharmacological approach to personalised medicine.

“In a wider perspective, statins function as a model here. They are a drug class where many factors should be taken into consideration when prescribing the medicine, but that does not currently happen in practice,” Niemi says.

In the future, the model could also be applicable to other drug classes.

“I believe that our research will open brand new possibilities for how medical treatment is chosen for each patient in the future.”

Mikko Niemi is one of the highly cited researchers at the University of Helsinki.

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A total of 2,304 applications were submitted for the 2016 ERC application round and 314 been selected for funding.