Professor Porkka specializes in acute leukemia, and his current research focuses on developing personalized treatment for cancer – treatment that takes into account the unique features of each patient as well as those of his or her disease. The work is led from Finland and involves some 50 researchers and a large network in Europe and the United States.
“Only about 30 percent of adults with acute leukemia survive, so we really need to come up with better treatment. One third of these adult patients don’t benefit from existing leukemia drugs – the medication in fact harms them. Although the disease has a common name, each case is different. This is why we must develop personalized treatment,” Professor Porkka says.
“We need to look at patients individually, characterize the features of their disease by sequencing their cancer cells and finding possible genetic deviations both in the cancer cells and the patients’ own cells. Each person’s genome influences his or her cancer risk and the efficacy of treatment. Personalized medicine enables accurate diagnosis and treatment and saves lives.”
Unique translational medicine
The research and individualized profiling are already yielding positive clinical results and helping patients. Professor Porkka’s research group is also involved in drug sensitivity analysis that aims to find new cancer drugs from among existing medicines, meaning new uses for old medicines.
“We’ve examined the malignant bone marrow cells of over 100 cancer patients, most of them cases with no known treatment, and we’ve managed to help some of them. And we’ve only tested a limited collection of drugs so far on each patient sample. At the moment, we can start this research-directed treatment rather late in the disease course due to legal and practical restrictions. Once we accumulate more evidence of the results of the drug analysis, we hope to begin treatment earlier. I expect to see this happen in the next couple of years,” says Professor Porkka.
This particular type of work that ties cancer research closely to clinical work, using these kinds of methods, is unique even on a global scale, although other groups are planning similar projects.
“Finland has been a forerunner in this field, and our work has attracted a lot of international attention. The strong collaboration between basic cancer research and doctors has facilitated sharing knowledge and resources.”
Crucial collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry
This kind of research, particularly the drug analysis, requires collaboration with pharmaceutical companies, as they have the resources to bring new drugs to the market and to patients. Cooperation between biobanks, academic research, hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry offers many new opportunities, new ways of studying and developing drugs, and a very good chance of better treatment.
“Pharmaceutical companies have shown great interest in this type of collaboration, and we’re looking forward to working with more of them. They have the best expertise in drug research at the moment, and their contribution is essential for developing new cancer drugs,” Porkka says.
“Overall, the future of cancer treatment is looking bright. We are finally starting to see new kinds of drugs, thanks to new technologies that have made it possible to learn more about the disease.”