People of PhaN: an interview with Jaakko Itkonen

Interview series of the Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology (PhaN) people. This time we will be introducing postdoctoral researcher Jaakko Itkonen. New items of the series will appear periodically to introduce the team members in greater depth.

Introductions of our diverse research group continue. The pandemic lockdowns are easing and the work in the lab is getting more and more lively. The doctoral students and the post docs are the most active in hands-on research. Let’s hear from Jaakko about his background and thoughts about doing pharmaceutical nanotechnology science.

Hello Jaakko. Please tell the readers something about yourself and where you came from.

‘Lo. I am Jaakko Itkonen, a Doctor of Pharmacy currently working as a postdoctoral researcher and a PhaN Team member. Before my current role, I worked as a doctoral researcher at the Division of Pharmaceutiucal Biosciences in Arto Urtti’s lab. My focus was more on ophthalmology and the use of therapeutic proteins, with the latter being my main interest already since my Master’s, which was also completed in the same unit. 

So, you have been working in the Faculty of Pharmacy here in the University of Helsinki for a long time. How did you transition to Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology group?

During the summer and fall of 2020, and before defending my doctoral dissertation, I was offered an opportunity to transition from my earlier work to carry out research focusing on drug delivery in an oncology context. Being of great interest also in ophthalmology, drug delivery was by no means a completely alien field to me, but as I had no personal research experience e.g. with nanoparticles, I saw this as an opportunity to broaden and deepen my expertise, and to branch out to another important therapeutic area. As this shift towards working e.g. with liposomes was promptly noticed by PhaN members, I was also quickly ‘assimilated’ into the group to allow for a better exchange of advice, experiences, ideas, and support.

Assimilated eh? An interesting choice of a word. You make the PhaN group sound like the Borg collective. I have to confess that there are striking similarities with the Borg and the PhaN collec… I mean research group, ranging from “nanoprobes” to the goal to “achieve perfection”. Our research is so appealing that resistance is futile, as you have noticed.

You probably embarked on this path early on. What made you interested in pharmacy in general?

Ever since primary school, I was interested in natural sciences and in particular (human) biology. Later, with the introduction of ‘heavier’ science subjects such as chemistry and physics this interest only deepened when I was in middle and high school.

Dealing with drug molecules, physiology, health, disease, materials, analytics, etc., pharmacy is very much a multi-disciplinary science, and can thus offer something for everyone and plenty for the curious and interested. As a student interested in a bit of everything but not wishing to focus solely on one field of science, to me it was thus quite a logical decision to apply to study pharmacy.

You have a curious mind. On what kind of research you have used this curiosity?

My earlier work and background are more centered on therapeutic proteins. This has involved the whole gamut, from constructing expression plasmids to protein expression in living cells, followed by protein purification, characterization, and lastly activity and stability studies. With therapeutic protein use in the treatment of posterior eye segment conditions, my research has touched upon e.g. the retinal penetration behavior of such macromolecules. 

But now your research topics are little bit different, right? As you said earlier, you are working with liposomes now. Could you tell us more about them?

Liposomes currently used in cancer therapy often possess a better safety profile on account of preventing and limiting cytotoxic drugs from distributing to off-targets and tissues. Yet, as they often fail to markedly enhance the delivery of the active agent to the desired target sites in tumors, they unfortunately fall short in significantly improving the therapeutic efficacy, often monitored e.g. as improvements in progression-free survival time, overall survival time, time to recurrence, etc.

I’m currently involved in a project focusing on utilizing light-activated liposomes for the delivery of anti-tumor peptides. Simply put, here the idea is that whilst the liposomal formulation on one hand protects the off-targets from unwanted effects and on the other hand protects the peptide cargo from enzymatic degradation in the body, with light-activation we can achieve drug release at the desired location and at the chosen time, resulting in locally high and controlled drug amounts.

It seems that the liposomes are doing all the heavy lifting. I heard that you enjoy different kinds of struggles on your free time.

In three words: I climb boulders. In a sentence: I go through disproportionate amounts of failure, frustration, and training to succeed in climbing boulders, both indoors and outdoors. The whole ordeal is about getting to the top, wildly yawping one’s excitement about overcoming this totally frivolous challenge, and after coming down safely and once the adrenaline rush has abated, going after the next one, again likely requiring ridiculous input. It’s very much a high effort, little return endeavor. I enjoy it to the MAX, but I’m not sure I can seriously recommend this to anyone :D

The PhaN collective appreciates dexterous and physically fit drones… I mean… good for you for overcoming scientific and physical obstacles. Climbing boulders sounds very much alike the pursue of academic funding and publications.

Do you have some guiding phrase that helps you through all this?

To quote someone influential and to appear as having realized something profound, I wish to paraphrase Buddha: ‘You are your own master, you make your own future. Therefore, whether it’s shining, raining, or snowing, let nothing stop you from making every day an ice cream day!’

I can agree on that wisdom. Maybe, from time to time, offer an option of pineapple rice for the ice cream.