Cyclotron, a 12-ton particle accelerator is the heart of the University of Helsinki’s Laboratory of Radiochemistry on Kumpula Campus. The three-meter-thick walls are for shielding from the neutron-radiation.
Docent Anu Airaksinen’s 13-member research group uses the cyclotron to produce short-lived radioactive isotopes for cancer imaging and treatment.
Primarily, the research projects have to do with tracking tiny nanodrugs as they move through the body. This is done by labeling a nanoparticle with a radioactive isotope, which can then be accurately monitored and imaged using PET and SPECT methods.
“We are also currently involved in a study in which a radioactive label is used to both image and treat cancer,” Airaksinen explains.
The hardest workers are the synthesis units where radiopharmaceuticals are manufactured, with operators protected by the lead shielding. After a purification process the drugs are ready to be injected into the laboratory animals: mice and rats.
“We test the treatment on animals to ensure that the nanodrug makes its way to the cancer tissue. This is highly important, as the nanodrugs can harm delicate organs,” Airaksinen explains.
An internationally exceptional unit
Elsewhere in the world, such infrastructures typically operate in conjunction with hospitals. As nanomaterials and nanotoxicology are new research areas, patient safety would prevent Airaksinen’s research group from using equipment shared by hospital staff.
“This infrastructure enables us to be at the forefront of research using new materials and compounds,” Airaksinen says.
Basic research can be linked more strongly to clinical research when the Meilahti hospital will increase its activities in production of radiopharmaceuticals.
“I believe that we will have a good framework for research cooperation that extends to direct patient work,” Airaksinen says
The cooperation is further promoted by the University’s Helsinki Institute of Life Science HiLIFE, which combines research infrastructures in the life sciences. HiLIFE involves 73 research infrastructures collected on 23 platforms. Their operation will be evaluated in May.
“Bringing the infrastructures together has already provided researchers with new insights. No single method can do everything – several methods must be used to solve a research problem,” Airaksinen says of the importance of the new approach.
BASIC RESEARCH DEVELOPS RESEARCH METHODS
“Many of the methods used at the unit are first proven through our own basic research and only then offered to others,” says Docent Eija Jokitalo, research director of the Electron Microscopy Unit at the Institute of Biotechnology.
Last year, the unit carried out 130 projects, 30 of which were cooperative efforts, with the remaining 100 leading to the development of services bought by research units or commercial organisations.
“Without our own research, we would not be able to have such a wide selection of the latest techniques,” Jokitalo says.
Jokitalo’s own research relates to the structure of the endoplasmic reticulum.
“It’s a vital cell organelle, and the first part of the secretory pathway. My goal is to increase textbook-level understanding of how cell biology functions.”
High-resolution electron microscopy is required for research inside the cell. The method requires a precise preparation of the samples, which can be no more than 60 nanometers thick in order for the electron shower from the microscope to penetrate them.
To produce such samples of a human hair, for example, it would need to be cut lengthwise into 3,000 slices, for magnification up to 100,000 times with an electron microscope.
“Light microscopy is good for examining larger areas, such as whole cells and how they relate to each other, but electron microscopy can see inside the cell. By combining both methods, we can begin to gain a comprehensive understanding of how cells work,” says Jokitalo.
The Electron Microscopy Unit has also pioneered 3D electron microscopy. The modelling programme developed by Jokitalo’s group is freely available online.