A scientist with protective goggles holding samples in a lab
 Finland is one of only seven countries in the world where the exports of medical technology exceed imports. Image: Adobe / ashtproductions

Healthtech innovation is thriving in Finland

Numerous Finnish companies have reported advances in their pursuit of diagnostic and therapeutic solutions for cancers and eye diseases.

Aleksi Teivainen

14.10.2021

The University of Helsinki in September said the US Department of Defense has awarded a roughly 4.5 million-euro grant for a breast cancer research project it has launched in partnership with the University of California, San Francisco.

The goal of the project is to promote research endeavours that facilitate the bringing of therapies based on Myc, an oncogene that on the one hand reprograms cancer cells to grow rapidly and on the other makes them vulnerable to various types of new drugs, from laboratories to the benefit of patients suffering from metastatic breast cancer.

The grant enables the research teams to develop treatments targeted specifically at cells carrying high levels of the oncogene, boosting patient response to immunotherapies.

Breast cancer tissue

The University of Helsinki led research project aims to develop next-generation cancer drugs that would kill only cancer cells but leave normal cells unharmed. Image: University of Helsinki / Pauliina Munne

“Researchers are getting better at finding drugs to target such specific cancer gene-created vulnerabilities, and we hope to generate next-generation cancer drugs that would kill only cancer cells but leave normal cells unharmed,” summed up Juha Klefström, the professor leading the joint project at the University of Helsinki. “We hope that these new drugs would also incite the body’s immunity to fight cancer.”

The project will be conducted in close co-operation with patient advocacy groups in Finland and the US.

Orion in August announced it has entered into a licensing and research co-operation agreement with Sweden’s Alligator Bioscience.

The Espoo-headquartered pharmaceutical giant said the objective of the partnership is to discover and develop bispecific antibody-based therapeutics for predetermined immuno-oncological targets utilising the phage display libraries and bispecific platform of Alligator Bioscience.

The libraries and platform provide a solid foundation to identify and develop high-quality, first-in-class therapeutic antibodies with excellent manufacturability characteristics, according to Søren Bregenholt, CEO of Alligator Bioscience.

Two people in a lab having a discussion with a third person looking at papers on the background

In collaboration with Alligator Bioscience, Orion is looking at developing new immuno-oncology treatments mobilising the immune system to eliminate cancer cells. Image: Orion

The Swedish company will receive an upfront payment and research support payments during the initial research period and an additional 469 million euros if the development, approval and sales milestones set for the projects are met. The agreement also guarantees it royalties if the product candidates are pushed into further development and commercialisation by Orion.

“Bispecific antibodies provide […] many advantages for next-generation immuno-oncology treatments with improved efficacy, particularly in cancer patients who do not respond to presently available therapeutics,” highlighted Outi Vaarala, head of research and development at Orion.

Advances in testing, diagnostics

Aiforia, a healthtech startup based in Helsinki, in September announced the closing of an equity funding round worth 17.5 million euros led by Epredia UK, a subsidiary of PHC Holdings Corporation.

The funding enables the startup to accelerate the development of its portfolio of clinical tools for artificial intelligence-assisted diagnosis of commonplace diseases such as breast and lung cancer. Its CE-marked in-vitro diagnostic solutions for both types of cancer are scheduled for launch later this year.

Aiforia stated that it will also expand its cloud-based tools and services for preclinical assessment in domains such as pharmaceutical development and continue hiring talent for its research, technical support and commercial teams.

Data scientist working on computer in front of a large screen

Aiforia’s AI-based solutions for clinical diagnostics and preclinical analysis enable pathologists to translate medical images into diagnoses with more efficiency and precision. Image: Aiforia

CEO Jukka Tapaninen said the startup is excited to build on its recent progress with the help of the funding.

“We are excited to continue this momentum with our product offering, to meet the demands of increasing volumes of patient samples and the need for quantitative, standardised data in pharmaceutical drug development,” he commented.

Finland’s Abacus Diagnostica, Kaivogen and Labrox revealed they will join forces in order to deliver to market a total solution for point-of-care testing for, for example, cancers and infectious diseases.

The solution is unique in that it is set to be the only solution enabling both antibody and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests regardless of time and place. It is able to identify over 10 bacteria or viruses from a single sample with PCR, allowing medical professionals to determine whether the symptoms are caused by the coronavirus, influenza or common cold, for example.

A past or prolonged infection or cancer, in turn, can be detected with the antibody test.

A person donning protective equipment handling a bag of samples in a laboratory.

The demand for point-of-care diagnostics is projected to increase parallel to rising mobility needs and population ageing. Image: Mufid Majnun / Pexels

“Our objective is to help doctors confirm the patient’s diagnosis with laboratory test at the very first appointment, avoiding days of waiting for test results – regardless of whether the patient has symptoms of cancer, coronavirus or any other infectious disease,” outlined Erno Sundberg, CEO of Abacus Diagnostica.

“By obtaining results for several pathogens quickly we can help break infection chains or detecting early-stage cancer. For point-of care testing to be meaningful, the testing solution must be versatile, easy-to-use and cost-effective. That is exactly the solution that we are offering.”

The demand for de-centralised diagnostic solutions is booming in the face of population ageing, increased mobility and its impact on the spread of communicable diseases.

Digital records, regulatory environment drive innovation

Health technology is one of the fastest growing high-tech segments for exports in Finland. The exports of health technology hit a new record of 2.4 billion euros prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic after growing by 5.7 per cent year-on-year. The country is one of only seven in the world where the exports medical technology, a sub-segment of health technology, outweigh the imports.

Tarja Enala, a senior advisor for health and wellness at Invest in Finland, in September pointed out that the availability of health data in electronic format, together with a friendly regulatory environment, has helped to establish the country as a hub for research, innovation and development in health technology.

Two people looking at a tablet screen

Finland has a large network of national health data registries, biobanks, and research centres. Image: Jussi Hellsten

“One-hundred per cent of our health records are in electronic format,” she highlighted. “Our electronic medical records are the only ones in the world where clinical, social care and prescriptions-based patient reported outcomes and social data are fully integrated.”

The Finnish Government in 2019 introduced a piece of legislation – the act on the secondary use of health and social data – to promote the effective and safe processing of and access to the data for data-driven innovations. Enala viewed that the act provides the country a significant competitive advantage internationally.

The multinational companies that have recognised the appeal and acted on it by setting up research and innovation facilities include Bayer, Fujitsu and Thermo Fischer.

High sights

Other Finnish companies have set their sights on ailments of the eye.

StemSight, a spin-off from Tampere University, reported last month it has secured 500 000 euros in funding for its effort to harness stem cells to cure corneal blindness. The funding was provided by Voima Ventures and Avohoidon Tutkimussäätiö, an Espoo-based foundation investing in biotechnology, healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

Roughly 300 people develop corneal blindness, as a result of burns or trauma to the surface of the eye, every year in Europe.

A hand holding cornea transplant with tweezers in front of an eye

StemSight is working on a stem cell treatment that can cure certain types of blindness. Image: StemSight

“Currently there are really no good treatment options, and it affects very young people,” Laura Koivusalo, CEO at StemSight, said to Sifted. “The average age [of patients] is 34. This means it causes a significant burden to society. In Finland, for example, we know we have patients who are young mothers who can’t see their children.”

The all-female team has set out to develop an off-the-shelf treatment utilising allogeneic human pluripotent stem cells taken from healthy donors and re-programmed into cells capable of replicating themselves endlessly. The cells, it envisions, will re-generate the cornea by replicating once introduced to the eye.

The solution is presently in the animal-testing phase, with human trials scheduled tentatively for 2025.

Turku-based DelSiTech and Seattle-based Visus Therapeutics announced roughly a month earlier they have put pen to paper on an exclusive licensing and collaboration agreement on the development of long-acting ocular therapeutics.

A hand holding two dispensers

DelSiTech and Visus Therapeutics have announced an exclusive licensing and collaboration agreement around the development of a range of novel therapies for sight-threatening conditions. Image: DelSiTech

The agreement signals the commitment of both parties to develop solutions across six unique programmes on the management of ocular diseases of the back and front of the eye. The management of disorders affecting the posterior especially continues to pose a challenge in pharmaceutical development, with the available treatments highly invasive and the ailments highly debilitating. While disorders of the anterior, which can be equally debilitating, can treated with regimens involving daily dosing, the regimens have proven difficult for patients to follow.

Silica Matrix, the drug delivery technology platform developed by DelSiTech, offers an alternative to invasive and labour-intensive options by enabling the controlled release of both small drug molecules and biologics in a wide range of tissues, including the intravitreal space inside the eye, for durations exceeding several months.

The controlled release also improves the retention of molecule drugs in the eye.

“DelSiTech has a long-standing keen focus on ophthalmic drug delivery, as an area where we feel that patients still remain largely unsupported,” stated Lasse Leino, CEO of the DelSiTech.

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