University of Helsinki helps to find solutions to the diagnostics and treatment of severe diseases through research on extracellular vesicles

With a group of research-oriented businesses, the University of Helsinki, the University of Eastern Finland and Tampere University have joined a new Finnish research ecosystem that develops novel solutions based on nanobiotechnology for the treatment and early diagnostics of severe progressive diseases.

In this new research ecosystem, Finland’s leading research organisations are joining forces with the Finnish Red Cross Blood Service, Orion Pharma and a number of nanotechnology SMEs. EVE–EV Ecosystem for Theranostic Platforms, an ecosystem funded by Business Finland and a total of 13 consortium partners, aims to investigate whether extracellular vesicles could be utilised in drug delivery as well as in the diagnostics and treatment of cancer and other diseases that are difficult to treat.

Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are nano-sized particles that carry molecules through which cells communicate with each other. The significance of the function of these particles is also actively studied internationally as a factor influencing health and diseases. The number and composition of extracellular vesicles change in conjunction with diseases, a fact that can be utilised in diagnostics. At the same time, their ability to transport molecules into cells can be harnessed for the purposes of drug delivery. 

Long-standing EV expertise of the University of Helsinki benefits the research ecosystem

From the University of Helsinki, contributors to the research ecosystem include a group headed by Professor Marjo Yliperttula and Docent Tapani Viitala from the Faculty of Pharmacy, as well as Docent Pia Siljander’s research group from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

“The EVE research ecosystem takes advantage of the long-standing expertise of University of Helsinki research groups in vesicular biology, measuring technologies and drug delivery,” Yliperttula says. The groundwork for the ecosystem was laid by a co-creation project headed by Yliperttula, also funded by Business Finland.

“In the last five years, using vesicles as drug transporters has gained a lot of attention. However, attention alone doesn’t guarantee their suitability for drug delivery. In fact, much more research-based knowledge on their characteristics and behaviour is needed before any potential clinical use,” Yliperttula notes.

“One of the key goals of our research group in biopharmaceutics in the research ecosystem is to find out whether vesicles could be used as drug transporters and, if that is the case, how that can be done. In this, we are drawing on our research group’s sustained efforts and expertise in manufacturing and modifying novel drug transporters based on nanoparticles. Yliperttula describes the approach to developing drug delivery as follows: “In terms of extracellular vesicles, it is important to determine how safe their use is, how they could be targeted to specific tissue and how they can be loaded with the desired pharmaceutical agent.” 

New technologies needed to support vesicle analysis

“There are several companies involved in developing measuring technologies that benefit from academic research. In this research ecosystem, our research group in pharmaceutical biophysics is developing, together with businesses, new technological solutions to improve vesicle analysis, which is a prerequisite for using vesicles in diagnostics or drug development,” Tapani Viitala states.

“The analysis methods currently available for studying the characteristics and function of vesicles are often cumbersome and require, among other things, the use of fluorescent labels. The use of such substances may alter the functional characteristics of vesicles, which hinders research. The long-term work carried out by our pharmaceutical biophysics group, especially on the utilisation of label-free measuring techniques in life sciences, now makes it possible to develop rapid measuring analytics in collaboration with companies for the characterisation of vesicular features. It also enables quality control, an important issue, if vesicles are to be produced on an industrial scale as raw material for drug delivery. In the future, the network established by this ecosystem could operate commercially too,” Viitala speculates.

Sustained basic research is the key

“The clinical use of vesicles still requires further research to standardise techniques and to develop reference materials. For this purpose, we are bringing to the ecosystem the expertise in vesicular biology and analytics techniques of our EV group as well as our extensive network of partners, such as the Euramet METVES II project,” Pia Siljander states.

“Even though the investigation and utilisation of extracellular vesicles is gaining considerable international traction, there remains plenty of conventional basic research to be done to understand the changes taking place in the molecular content of vesicles as well as the function and importance of different vesicle populations. Indeed, we are extremely pleased to have our research focused on platelet-derived extracellular vesicles as part of this great ecosystem,” Siljander says.

The budget for the University of Helsinki in the project is approximately €2.3 million, granted by Business Finland.

Thirteen consortium partners involved

The consortium comprises 13 partners conducting active international research cooperation in the field of nanotechnology. In addition to the Blood Service and Orion Pharma, the companies involved include FinnAdvance, Kaivogen, Timegate Instruments, UPM Biomedicals, Bionavis, the Biobank of Eastern Finland and Afekta. The research groups of the following academics provide the project with solid expertise in research: Marjo YliperttulaTapani Viitala and Pia Siljander from the University of Helsinki; Tarja MalmRiikka Martikainen and Arto Mannermaa from the University of Eastern Finland; Elina Vuorimaa-Laukkanen from Tampere University; and Leena Hakalahti from VTT Oulu.

Read the original media release:

New pharmaceutical research utilising nanobiotechnology in Finland