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Finnish innovators look for cure to healthcare challenges

Artificial intelligence-based solutions have the potential to enhance the safety and efficiency of clinical drug research.

Gorodenkoff / Adobe

Academic and corporate efforts are underway to, for example, expedite drug development and launch tools that enable societies to live with, rather than control, COVID-19.

Aalto University and Bayer in February announced they have expanded their collaboration on artificial intelligence-based solutions for enhancing the safety and efficacy of clinical drug research by embarking on a three-year project with HUS Helsinki University Hospital. The methods and algorithms developed as part of the collaboration will be applied to the patient data of the university hospital.

“Combining real-world data and clinical research data involves several challenges,” toldJussi Leinonen, principal clinical data scientist at Bayer. “With AI, it can be done much faster, more efficiently and also more reliably.”

The project partners believe artificial intelligence is a means to address numerous challenges associated with drug development, including its resource-intensive nature.

Artificial intelligence can help to solve many challenges in drug development and health data processing. Image: Bayer

About 10 years and two billion euros are required on average to bring a drug from initial discovery to market approval, according to a study by Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. The development also entails ethical issues arising from the necessity to administer a placebo or, often, a less effective drug to the control group to ensure the validity of results.

“The solution could be a virtual control group shaped based on medical databases using artificial intelligence,” envisioned Harri Lähdesmäki, professor at Aalto University and the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence (FCAI).

In Finland, the small population presents another challenge, one that could be tackled to the benefit of research by promoting the utilisation of artificial intelligence in processing health data, according to Leinonen.

“Finland has high-quality health data and leading practices in sharing it,” he said.

The globally unique tripartite project will also investigate the potential of artificial intelligence to enhance the quality and reliability of clinical trials by, for example, creating algorithms sensitive to indications of adverse side-effects. “We are also looking for possibilities to reduce the number of patients needed for clinical trials while ensuring the safety and reliability of the trials,” told Leinonen.

Lähdesmäki viewed that the technology has the potential to accelerate the very first stages of drug development by identifying molecules worth exploring more thoroughly in laboratory tests.

“Artificial intelligence will not replace humans in clinical trials,” he stressed. “AI in itself, in the near future, will not make independent decisions but recognises decisions that require a reaction or guides reactions in a certain way.”

The University of Helsinki in January said the European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a five-year grant worth 1.5 million euros to a research project spearheaded by a lecturer at its faculty of medicine, Christian Hakulinen.

The project investigates the effects of mental health disorders on the wellbeing of friends and family, with a focus on socioeconomic factors.

Hakulinen became the 39th recipient of the prestigious starting grant at the University of Helsinki. The grants are designed to support outstanding research directors who are ready to embark on an independent career.

Healthtech supports post-pandemic recovery

The pursuit of innovation in healthcare has intensified during the coronavirus pandemic, with consumers and service providers compelled to re-think, respectively, their relationship with health and their ability to operate safely. Consumers have turned to personalised health solutions like smartwatches that measure sleep and heart rate, while service providers have embraced devices that, for instance, enable the monitoring of patients at home.

Health technology has assumed a key role in the post-pandemic recovery – not only for individuals intent on taking better care of themselves and healthcare providers initiating their digital transformation, but also for the national economy.

Preliminary data from last year indicates that the exports of health technology rebounded quickly from the onset of the pandemic, possibly outpacing the growth witnessed before the pandemic, according to Mediauutiset. The value of health technology exports stood at two billion euros for the period between January and October, representing an increase of roughly 100 million from the corresponding period in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The best two months of the year for health technology exports are typically November and December. In 2019, for example, the value of exports increased by 500 million euros in the two months to 2.4 billion euros.

Learning to live with COVID-19

Deep Sensing Algorithm’s breathalyser produces a result in 45 seconds and is ready for the next patient in about two minutes, according to the company based in Tampere, Finland. Image: Deep Sensing Algorithms

The novel coronavirus remains a focal point for many healthcare innovators as it continues to pose a threat to the unvaccinated and immunocompromised and disrupt the functioning of society through absences from work.

“The epidemic will probably threaten the health of people and hamper the functioning of societies for a long time to come, and we need a broad range of means to stop it,” saidKalervo Väänänen, board chairperson at Therapeutica Borealis.

The Turku-based healthtech company announced earlier this year that its patented product for preventing coronavirus infections has been granted approval in the US.

A combination of mouthwash and toothpaste, the product facilitates the creation of hypothiocyanite, an organic compound that inhibits the spike protein of the virus from binding to the host cell receptors, and a slightly alkaline environment that together trigger a chemical defence against the virus. The product contains no actual drug molecules and is used similarly to ordinary mouthwash and toothpaste.

It is scheduled to hit the market later this year.

Deep Sensing Algorithms (DSA) in January announced it has secured CE certification for its ultra-rapid detection technology for COVID-19, DSA BreathPass.

The portable breathalyser detects the infection in exhaled breath based on the metabolic by-products of the immune response, delivering the result in only 45 seconds.

Pekka Rissanen, CEO of DSA, is confident that the solution can make a real difference in the fight against COVID-19. “It is low cost, non-invasive and highly scalable. We are driven to provide a disruptive screening solution that helps individuals, families and communities to return to normal at work, school and play,” he stated.

In November, a Finnish consortium of companies and research institutes announced a two-and-a-half-year project to explore new means to prevent viral infections indoors and enable the safe functioning of societies during pandemics.

With a budget of 12 million euros, the project is one of the largest university-business endeavours ever funded by Business Finland.

Called E3, the project will focus especially on the various pathways of pathogens and viruses, virus control and detection methods that keep the air clean and safe in offices, public transport and public spaces.

From precision instruments to workflow tools

Another newly certified medical device from Finland is IQ-Tip, a smart spinal needle developed by Helsinki-based Injeq. The needle is constantly aware of the exact location of its tip and issues an audiovisual alarm when, in the case of a lumbar puncture for example, the tip comes across cerebrospinal fluid, thereby supporting the physician performing the puncture and promoting patient safety.

IQ-Tip is a class-III medical device, meaning it is subject to the most stringent requirements under the EU Medical Device Regulation.

Smart spinal needle IQ-Tip gives an alarm when the needle tip detects cerebrospinal fluid. Image: Injeq

Jussi Seitsonen, head of quality at Injeq, pointed out that the certification is granted only to submissions that satisfy the requirements throughout their life cycle, be it in regards to patient safety, clinical performance, risk management or follow-up.

Injeq has begun looking for clinical reference partners as the first step toward making the innovation a part of routine treatment practices of children with leukaemia and neonates in Europe. Its longer-term goal, meanwhile, is to facilitate challenging punctures, including lumbar punctures, in adults around the globe.

Buddy Healthcare and KARL STORZ, a German healthcare solutions provider, last month announced a strategic partnership designed to bring to market a comprehensive digital tool covering every inch of the care pathway, from early diagnosis and referral to therapy and recovery.

The Helsinki-based digital health company has developed a platform that, on the one hand, enables healthcare professionals to coordinate care for patients not on clinical premises and, on the other, provides patients with the right information at the right time and enables them to submit medical forms and securely contact the hospital.

The German company, in turn, has developed a pathway tool for managing intraoperative workflows.

“Together we can bring a unique and integrated solution to the market to support […] surgery patients’ care coordination and guidance process. This speeds up our expansion in [Germany, Austria and Switzerland],” saidJussi Määttä, CEO of Buddy Healthcare.

The digital patient pathway tool will be rolled out first in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

By: Aleksi Teivainen