The Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) at the University of Helsinki was founded in 2008 with a goal of developing personalized medicine. Today, it is an organization of 200 researchers, with half of them working on cancer research.
FIMM is located on the Meilahti hospital campus. A close connection to doctors and clinical work is a definite advantage for a molecular medicine research institute. In addition to bringing together researchers and doctors, FIMM has also managed to attract a third collaborative party – the pharmaceutical industry – to work on personalized healthcare in a unique ecosystem.
“We are closely connected to many hospitals, such as the Helsinki University Hospital, as well as to biobanks like the Finnish Hematology Registry and Biobank, the Helsinki Biobank, and the Biobank of the National Institute for Health and Welfare. This means that we can get clinical samples and clinical data from patients and engage in close collaboration with clinicians. We want to develop translational cancer research that binds together research and clinical work,” says Professor Olli Kallioniemi from FIMM.
“We also need the pharmaceutical and diagnostic industry in order to get access to the latest drugs and diagnostic technologies. We are now receiving many collaboration requests from companies and researchers all over the world.”
In addition to facilitating personalized healthcare through research and collaboration with doctors, biobanks and the industry, FIMM also implements new technologies and offers them to Finnish hospitals and doctors.
Genes and molecules: the key to understanding cancer
“Cancer research is one of our core research areas. In includes genetic and molecular research, which help us understand how cancer works. We are also conducting drug sensitivity analysis, which provides more information on how cancer cells respond to drugs. Another important research area concentrates on digital microscopy and molecular pathology,” says Professor Kallioniemi.
Although machines can detect much smaller details than the human eye, they are not likely to match the interpretation of experienced pathologists for quite some time. Computers may, however, soon help in cancer diagnostics and enable a closer study of the molecular structures in different parts of a tumor.
“The most promising area of cancer research is immuno-oncology, which studies the reactions of a patient’s immune cells to cancer and aims to boost the body’s own immune system. Cancer cells tend to disguise themselves with so called immune checkpoints. Immuno-oncology may help us come up with drugs that block these checkpoints and allow the body to react strongly to cancer cells.”
According to Professor Kallioniemi, immuno-oncology has more potential than any other treatment to actually cure cancer. Most other types of treatment only manage to inhibit cancer cells for a time, and their ability to lead to cures depends on the immune system wiping out the remaining cancer cells. But much more research is needed to find out when and for what kinds of patients immunotherapy works, and that is exactly what FIMM is studying.
“We have certain advantages in Finland that can help us push forward personalized healthcare. They include the unique Finnish genetic structure and our expertise on genetic research; our biobank collections, made easily available through legislation; our homogenic healthcare system and registers; and our strong collaboration tradition between research and clinical work.”
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