Concentrating research into larger entities known as hubs is a trend currently prevalent all over the world, notes Academy Professor Kari Alitalo, who heads the Translational Cancer Medicine Program at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki.
“Methods and technologies used in medical research have evolved very rapidly, requiring increasingly diverse and advanced special skills in research. Furthermore, the establishment and maintenance of the required infrastructure is expensive, bringing about a situation where small groups find it difficult to compete.”
Assembling groups focused on the same topic that complement each other into a research programme is one way of establishing a research community with sufficient competence and competitiveness.
Alitalo compares research programmes to tribes.
“That kind of a community is natural to humans, just the right size. The benefits increase when different tribes are in friendly and stimulating interaction with each other.”
However, there are also risks to the growth of research entities. Structures easily become too heavy and constricting, and their operations may start to be managed too much from the top down.
“It’s important to provide conditions where researchers find it natural and easy to meet face to face without unnecessary hierarchies or rituals. If the activities involve too much administrative tinkering, meetings, constant emailing, and micromanaging from above, researchers will start feeling that they have no say in anything. They will become frustrated.”
Another phenomenon to avoid is the wrong kind of tension developing between sub-cultures in the tribe.
“Creativity suffers if there is disagreement and tension within the community.”
Emergent junior researchers
Alitalo has headed research programmes focused on cancer research at Meilahti Campus since the Faculty of Medicine started using the research programme concept in 1999. However, his current programme, fourth of its kind, is quite different from the one focused on cancer biology launched in 1999.
“I’m thankful to my colleagues for our ability to regenerate, take research forward and bring new questions to the fore. We have with us new, developing groups with emergent junior researchers,” Alitalo explains.
He emphasises that this is exactly what should take place in research groups: projects and resources should gradually be transferred to the next generation.
“In fact, what should be ensured, above all, is that baby boomers will be succeeded by young researchers who can stand on their own two feet and who are able to advance research and compete with the best in the world.”
Alitalo admits to being slightly worried about how young Finns will fare among increasingly tough challenges. He thinks Finnish children and adolescents are protected and nannied very much these days, easily resulting in the avoidance of risk-taking.
“The brains of babies, children and young people develop at lightning speed. If they are given enough positive challenges at this stage, the brain learns to process more complex and stressful situations. Do our young people meet such challenges? Will those that accept challenges increasingly come from cultures where the young have had to learn to deal with difficult situations on their own?” Alitalo ponders.
Cancer research has come closer to the patient
In the new millennium, cancer research has taken enormous strides. One of the significant changes is a shared genetic language that made it possible to break down the barriers between basic research, clinical research and patient care, as well as the development of individualised cancer therapies. Another substantial shift took place with the discovery of how to release the brakes of the immune defence system so that the patient's own white blood cells are activated to fight against cancerous cells.
“We are using more and more samples collected directly from patients. With the help of single-cell analysis, spatial transcriptomics and other relatively new technologies, we are able to investigate the complexity of tumours and the nature of their cells with increasing precision.”
Cancerous tumours are individual, as they contain several types of cancer cells. A single drug therapy may be effective against only some of the cells of a given tumour, after which the cancer cells that were unaffected by the treatment may cause the recurrence of cancer. To find efficacious forms of treatment, researchers must be able to identify the gene defects and gene function of the tumour and its immune cells to a very detailed degree even at the level of individual cancer cells.
Modern cancer research also involves organoids – three-dimensional cell cultures grown from the stem cells of a patient’s tumour that retain its special characteristics. They help researchers experiment with the efficacy of various therapies in treating the cancer of specific patients.
“Organoids not only help in screening pharmaceutical agents, but they are also used in analysing gene defects and investigating immunotherapies,” Alitalo says.
“New methods also reduce the need for animal testing,” Alitalo points out.
In the new iCAN Flagship Programme, the Translational Cancer Medicine Program is collaborating with Professor Lauri Aaltonen’s Applied Tumor Genomics Research Program, the Translational Immunology Research Program headed by Professor Satu Mustjoki, and various other parties.
From the laboratory to therapeutic trials in six years?
Cancer research, like other types of medical research, benefits from the new opportunities provided by biobanks, as well as the improved ability brought about by artificial intelligence to link information concerning the patient’s condition, medical records and various registers with the results of basic research.
“The importance of machine learning and artificial intelligence is growing on many fronts, and this is an aspect we will be collaboratively developing with the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland FIMM and the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa.
“Our new iCAN Flagship competence cluster at the campus extends to all the fields mentioned above, in addition to which it brings in business collaboration to promote health technologies and develop new innovations into better therapies for the benefit of patients.”
The term of the Translational Cancer Medicine Research Program will come to a close at the end of 2024. What will have been achieved by then?
“Our primary goal is to have our findings taken at least as far as therapeutic trials and hopefully even to patient care.”
Programmes headed by Alitalo at the Research Programs Unit of the Faculty of Medicine:
2019–2024 Translational Cancer Medicine Research Program
2013–2018 Translational Cancer Biology Research Program
2007–2012 Molecular/Cancer Biology Research Program
1999–2007 Molecular/Cancer Biology Research Program
Academy of Finland Centres of Excellence headed by Alitalo:
2014–2019 Centre of Excellence in Translational Cancer Biology
2006–2011 Centre of Excellence in Cancer Biology
2000–2005 Program in Cancer Biology: Growth Control and Angiogenesis