Introducing the HiLIFE Grand Challenge projects 2018–2021

The eight HiLIFE Grand Challenge projects unite life science researchers at the University of Helsinki and partner organizations in new ways to provide solutions to major global challenges.

The HiLIFE – Helsinki Institute of Life Science Grand Challenge projects collect together life science research strengths at the University of Helsinki and collaborating organizations such as Helsinki University Hospital HUS and National Resources Institute of Finland LUKE. The Grand Challenges are aimed to be inclusive and interdisciplinary to form an environment where new ideas are born at the edges of research fields. Altogether 257 Principal Investigators and 19 national and international partners are involved already.

The aim of the Grand Challenge Program is to create a positive environment that attracts leading international researchers, students, partners, and funding in the field of life sciences. The projects are bottom-up academic platforms for researchers at all career stages stimulating discussion, dialogue, and spread of new ideas.

The Grand Challenge program provides up to 1 360 000 euros seed funding for the projects. Funding of up to 70 000 euros is provided to each project and additional funding can be proposed  for e.g. scientific meetings, defined subprojects, or to support external grants for these high quality nuclei.

The following eight HiLIFE Grand Challenge projects for an initial three year term 2018–2021 were selected by the HiLIFE Board based on two-stage application including an evaluation by the HiLIFE Scientific Council.

Climate smart northern agriculture

Chair: Kristiina Karhu
: Jussi Heinonsalo
Number of participating PI’s at start
: 20
Partner organisations: University of Eastern Finland, Natural Resources Institute Finland, Finnish Meteorological Institute

In conjunction with the Paris climate conference in December 2015, the French government proposed to increase the soil carbon stock on agricultural land globally by 0.4% per year, which would halt the current growth of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. This Grand Challenge project will investigate how to achieve this, by understanding and maximising the transfer of carbon to long-term storage through the soil microbial carbon pump, for example by increasing the vegetated period, and use of deep-rooted plants and organic amendments.

Value networks from plant genomics of crops, native plants and forest trees

Chair: Jaakko Kangasjärvi
: Paula Elomaa
Number of participating PI’s at start
: 30
Partner organisations: Natural Resources Institute Finland, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Globally, resource scarcity, population growth, ecosystem degradation and climate change force the societies and businesses to renew drastically the ways of production and consumption. Circular bioeconomy is both necessity and an opportunity for bio-based growth. The Viikki bioeconomy cluster integrates high-impact fundamental research on plants, primary production and management of crop plants and trees to develop into the most recognized research centre in genes-bioproducts-society value-network in Europe by 2030.

Understanding biological resilience

Chair: Rose Thorogood
Otso Ovaskainen
Number of participating PI’s at start
: 46
Partner organisations: Aalto University, Natural Resources Institute Finland, University of Guelph, Duke University, Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Understanding why and how some species are able to cope or even thrive in the face of rapid environmental change (biological resilience) has key implications for ecosystem services, food production and societal well-being. Researchers from across the life sciences will here harness the revolutionary potential of environmental and genomic Big Data to make sense of our living world and detail pathways for resilience at the level of genomes, individuals, populations, species and ecosystems.

Combatting antimicrobial drug resistance

Chair: Teppo Hiltunen
: Liisa Holm
Number of participating PI’s at start
: 16
Partner organisations: Aalto University, Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira

The rapid rise in antibiotic-resistant pathogens is one of the grand challenges in life sciences. This project aims to harness cutting-edge microbiological and sequencing technologies and bioinformatics to 1) revolutionize infection diagnostics enabling early recognition and personalized treatment of hospital acquired infections and 2) enable epidemiological inference and understand associations between microbiome, drug responses, and treatment outcomes. Furthermore, the project will develop quantitative strategies to combat antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in originating hotspots including food production settings and sewage treatment plants.

Nutrient Control of Health and Disease (Helsinki Metabolism Consortium - HiMet)

Chair: Anu Suomalainen-Wartiovaara
: Pekka Katajisto
Number of participating
PI’s at start: 24
Partner organisations: Aalto University, Helsinki University Hospital, Natural Resources Institute Finland, National Institute for Health and Welfare

Food choices and defined diets have become an important social theme. Furthermore, change in food amount and quality over the past 50 years has triggered global health epidemics such as obesity and diabetes. Helsinki Metabolism Consortium (HiMet) addresses the Grand Challenge of 1) how nutrients and diets regulate molecular metabolism in different tissues in young and old age and affect healthspan and 2) how nutrition affects progression of metabolic and degenerative diseases. The multidisciplinary HiMet aims to provide evidence-based data to serve as a basis for societal decision making.

Genomics and digital diagnostics for precision medicine (GD-PMed)

Chair: Samuli Ripatti
: Johan Lundin
Number of participating PI’s at start
: 35
Partner organisations: Aalto University, Helsinki University Hospital, Tampere University of Technology, National Institute for Health and Welfare, Broad Institute of MIT, Harvard, Lund University, Folkhälsan, University of Stockholm, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research

Genomes and detailed recordings of the environment and life style provide a basis for improved disease prevention and treatment strategies. In addition, precision medicine requires accurate, effective and consistent diagnostics to support tailoring of treatment for the individual patient. The Grand Challenge project aims to resolve 1) the genomic grand challenges in diagnostics and prevention that most complex diseases have in common, and 2) to advance digital health and medical artificial intelligence (AI) towards fully automated diagnosis of three major diseases breast cancer, prostate cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases using the unique assets in Finland.

Intelligent therapies for cancer and uterine leiomyoma (IT-CAN)

Chair: Kari Alitalo
: Pia Vahteristo
Number of participating PI’s at start
: 26
Partner organisations: Aalto University, Helsinki University Hospital

Current ways to monitor tumor progression and predict drug efficacy are limited to reductionist cell culture and mouse tumor models that do not take into account the patient-to-patient variation of the disease. The overreaching goal of this Grand Challenge is the discovery of next-generation precision medicines, using immune- and microenvironment-enriched cancer and stem cell-based organoid cultures from colon, lung, breast, pancreatic cancers as well as from uterine leiomyoma. The cancers targeted represent a major cause of cancer-related deaths, and leiomyomas are the leading cause for hysterectomy and pose a massive socio-economic burden. In this Grand Challenge, the unique expertise of the teams at the University and Helsinki University Hospital is utilized to generate new solutions for diagnostics and treatment.

Understanding the brain (Helsinki Brain and Mind - HB&M)

Chair: Eero Castrén
: Henna Tyynismaa
Number of participating PI’s at start
: 60
Partner organisations: Aalto University, Minerva Foundation, University of Eastern Finland, Folkhälsan, Helsinki University Hospital

Understanding the brain is the most exciting quest of the humankind. To meet this challenge, multidisciplinary group of neuroscientists at the University of Helsinki, Aalto University and HUS will join forces to establish Helsinki Brain and Mind (HB&M), a cooperation platform that will develop existing and emerging areas of excellence and bring them to an internationally leading position. The focus of the Grand Challenge Project is to advance models that bridge neuroscience of human and experimental animal brain.

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Read also: Grand Challenge Program proposals evaluated by the HiLIFE Scientific Council