“In practice, I do all my work on a computer in any case, so working remotely suits me quite well,” says Kokkonen, who works at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio.
As the first researcher of the FinPharma team from December 2019, Kokkonen focuses on designing pharmaceutical agents with effects similar to short RNA sequences, which are used in gene therapies to either increase or decrease the quantity of certain proteins.
In her work, Kokkonen combines computer-aided drug design and the simulation of RNA molecules.
“The topics are not connected as such, but there’s a history to what I’m doing. Seppo Ylä-Herttuala, who investigates vascular endothelial growth factors, had the idea that reducing the production of these growth factors in conjunction with cancer would prevent malignancies from growing the extra blood vessels essential to their function. And in the case of myocardial infarction, it would be beneficial to be able to bring on the creation of new blood vessels.”
Asking how this graduate of the University of Eastern Finland with a background in pharmacy ended up in the field produces a chuckle.
“Chance may well have had something to do with it. I wasn’t your traditional computer nerd, and I remember that I just somehow ended up getting the modelling task when master’s thesis topics were distributed,” says Kokkonen, describing the infancy of her simulation efforts.
Piia Kokkonen defended her doctoral thesis on drug design related to sirtuins in 2015, after which she moved to the Czech Republic to study the basics of molecular dynamics and enzyme design. Today, she utilises all techniques associated with computer-aided drug design from docking and simulations of molecular dynamics to simple calculations in quantum mechanics.
“I'm inspired by new findings in my work. I get to see something that no one else may have seen before,” Kokkonen notes.