Pioneering Finnish research helps understand how cancer responds to drugs

Pioneering Finnish research helps understand how cancer responds to drugs

Personalized Healthcare

Treating leukemia with a kidney cancer drug? Looking for new solutions to old problems may help understand how cancer cells work. It may also produce some new cures.

A Finnish research group is trying to get the upper hand of cancer by exploring new kinds of medication possibilities.

“Developing entirely new cancer medicines is very slow and very expensive. We are looking at cancer drugs from a new perspective and studying which existing drugs – or drugs that are currently being developed by pharmaceutical companies – could work for an individual cancer patient,” says Professor Olli Kallioniemi from the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) at the University of Helsinki.

The project involves every possible cancer drug on the market, and as many of those under development as the researchers can get their hands on, altogether some 540 drugs at the moment. They are tested in a laboratory against an individual patient’s cancer cells in culture to see if and how the cells react to this vast array of drugs.

“This research has continued for five years now. When we started, it was an entirely new way of testing patients’ cancer cells, even on an international level. The project has expanded along the way and drawn a great deal of attention. Many pharmaceutical companies that work on cancer drugs have expressed interest in having their drugs tested in the project. It is a clinical trial that doesn’t expose patients to any drugs,” says Professor Kallioniemi.

The future of cancer treatment

The research project is a collaboration of FIMM, the University of Helsinki, and the Helsinki University Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center. It has initially concentrated on leukemia but is now expanding to other cancer types as well.

“This kind of research will really benefit everyone. The result of the drug sensitivity analysis can be provided to the patient’s treating doctor, so that treatment can be optimized. It is personalized healthcare in a very literal sense. The work also benefits researchers and pharmaceutical companies, as it helps find new uses for existing drugs and speeds up their approval and also drives the development of new drugs. Getting new and possibly cheaper drugs on the market benefits the entire society,” Kallioniemi says.

The biggest challenge in the drug sensitivity research is the fact that some of the promising drug effects are seen for drugs that have not yet been approved for clinical use and cannot therefore be tested on patients. But even in those cases, the results of the analysis can push pharmaceutical development forward.

The research group has recently started analyzing samples from Sweden and Norway in addition to Finnish samples. It is also building a European network of institutions that could conduct similar tests, and it has joined an American consortium that is looking at the possibilities of developing the analysis into a clinical test.

“This is not a project that will end anytime soon, as there is a continuing need for this type of information. Understanding the drug response of cancer cells is the future of cancer diagnostics and optimized treatment.”

Further information:

Systems medicine paves the way for improved treatment for leukemia patients – A model for other cancer treatments in the future?
A public–private research collaboration leads to an unexpected discovery in patients with drug-resistant leukemia
Drug sensitivity testing – new possibilities for personalized cancer treatment (video)


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