Professor prevents cancer with Nobel-winning discovery

The DNA repair mechanism discovered by recent Nobel laureate Paul Modrich is already in use at the University of Helsinki. Professor Minna Nyström used it as the basis for a diagnostic test, patented it, and is now encouraging other researchers to embrace entrepreneurship.

At the beginning of October, Professor Paul Modrich received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering a repair mechanism through which mismatched DNA base pairs are corrected. This repair mechanism is of vital importance, as errors that appear in DNA hinder cells from functioning properly, render genes unstable and cause cancer.

The announcement of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was a pleasant surprise to Minna Nyström, professor in epigenetics and genetics at the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences. Nyström herself has spent 20 years studying DNA mismatch repair in a form of hereditary colorectal cancer known as Lynch syndrome.

She has also developed a diagnostic test for the syndrome.

“Previously we were able to find families with Lynch syndrome by studying the oncological histories of the relatives of cancer patients as well as the characteristics of the cancerous tumour, and by looking for mutations that render the carrier susceptible. Now, a simple skin sample can determine whether the patient has a functional DNA repair mechanism,” Professor Nyström explains.

“If the mechanism is not functional, the patient will be offered regular clinical screenings to prevent cancer.”

Lynch syndrome is the most common hereditary form of colorectal cancer, and the average age of diagnosis is 45. Sufferers may develop several tumours over time, but their growth rate is slow. Thus the cancer can be prevented by regular screenings throughout the patient’s lifespan and removing any tumours that appear.

Test created alongside research

The test to diagnose Lynch syndrome was created alongside more conventional research. After graduating with a doctorate in the late 1990s, Minna Nyström worked in a research group led by Professor Josef Jiricny in Zürich. The recent Nobel laureate Paul Modrich and Professor Jiricny were both studying DNA mismatch repair mechanisms at the time.

In Zürich, Nyström got to participate in the development of the first iteration of the test, and the work was later published in a scientific article. Nyström took the research material related to the test with her when she returned to Finland, to study more closely how the test would work on patients.

In Finland, Nyström was swept up by the laboratory industry, but continued her research on Lynch syndrome and DNA repair alongside her day job.

In 2008, her long, close cooperation with Professor Päivi Peltomäki finally led to a joint grant application to the European Research Council, and the funding they received enabled Nyström to return to the University as a full-time researcher.

Help from an angel investor

Developing a diagnostic test for Lynch syndrome was originally just one tangent in the ERC application.

“Then the real invention was made. It happened during the ERC funding period, so we could apply for a Proof of Concept grant, a new funding scheme launched by the ERC.”

As the test was developed further, its commercial potential became increasingly apparent, prompting Nyström to start her own business, acquire funding from Tekes and begin looking for business partners.

“A close research colleague got me in contact with an angel investor who indicated potential interest in the company. As the investor had no biosciences experience, we had many intense discussions on the topic.”

Once the funding seemed sure, Nyström’s company began to apply for national patents around the world – which is quite a process, involving translators, patent agents and lawyers.  They have now registered 11 patent applications in Europe, North America and Asia, as well as in Australia, where they have already been granted their first patent.

The University of Helsinki holds the intellectual property rights to the test, and the company has a licence for the rights. Lengthy negotiations were conducted to determine the content of the licencing agreement.

The door is open both ways

When she founded her company, Professor Nyström had her own research group. She still does.

“The company currently employs five people, two of whom transferred from my research group after receiving their doctorates. They are continuously working on further developing the test, which is to say that they work in research. At the moment, one person is working on a dissertation.”

“The company also employs two Bachelor’s-level research assistants, one of whom has now temporarily joined my research project to work on a Master’s thesis.”

The company and research group are closely connected, and the researchers can easily switch from one to the other. The company also has a bonus scheme which rewards employees for development ideas and advances made.

According to Professor Nyström, combining the roles of entrepreneur and researcher is most difficult when a company is being launched. Once funding is secured, things become easier, as the entrepreneur can afford to hire people to take care of accounting, insurance, legal issues and commercialisation.

“These days, I have time for research as well. I also enjoy mentoring fledgling research entrepreneurs, since I believe that someone like me who learned everything the hard way can help those who are coming up next.”