Two women pose for the camera
 Meri-Tuuli Laaksonen and Sandra Lounamaa founded Gubbe in 2018. Image: Jussi Puikkonen

Finnish firms seek better therapies

From cancers to traumatic brain injuries, Finnish companies are using their knowhow to advance diagnostics, therapies and, ultimately, patient outcomes.

Aleksi Teivainen

03.11.2022

Scientists at Aalto University, HUS Comprehensive Cancer Center, Stanford University and the University of Helsinki in October revealed they have developed an artificial intelligence system capable of predicting which patients will benefit from therapies that activate the immune defence system.

Differences in patient responses have been an obstacle for utilising what have otherwise proven to be effective therapies especially against skin cancer.

“Prior research has been unable to provide doctors with tools that would predict who will benefit from treatment that activates the defence system,” told Jani Huuhtanen, doctoral researcher at Aalto University and the University of Helsinki.

“The correct targeting of therapies is extremely important, since drug therapies are expensive and serious adverse effects fairly common,” said Jani Huuhtanen. Image: University of Helsinki

The artificial intelligence system developed by the scientists makes it practically possible to diagnose skin cancer with a blood test, determine the prognosis and target therapies more accurately.

The scientists set off from the hypothesis that the immune cells of patients for whom therapy was ineffective do not recognise skin cancer as an enemy. They used the system to analyse samples from nearly 500 skin-cancer patients and compare them to samples from nearly 1 000 healthy individuals, ultimately calculating the number of immune cells that recognise skin cancer.

The analyses revealed, as expected, a higher number of cancer-sensing defensive cells in subjects with melanoma than in healthy subjects. Patients with more such cells were also more likely to benefit from therapies that activate the immune system.

A man touches his own back

Thanks to the finding, in the future it may be possible to identify skin cancer from a blood sample. Image: Adobe

Although the use of artificial intelligence in medicine has increased substantially, applying it to patient care requires long-term collaboration between medical doctors and artificial intelligence experts. Follow-up studies will seek to determine, for example, whether the newly developed system can predict patient responses also to therapies still in development, said Harri Lähdesmäki, associate professor of computational biology and machine learning at Aalto University.

“Our AI model is agile and adaptable, making it possible to calculate the number of cancer-sensing defensive cells also in the case of other cancers, including breast cancer, lung cancer and blood cancers,” he added.

TILT unleashes adenovirus on ovarian cancer

TILT Therapeutics, a Helsinki-based developer of cancer immunotherapies, last month announced the first American patient has been dosed in its ovarian cancer trial with its oncolytic adenovirus, TILT-123. The dosing marks a significant milestone toward utilising oncolytic viruses armed with cytokines and other molecules to make a difference in the fight against the difficult disease, according to CEO Akseli Hemminki.

“Ovarian cancer is a killer disease with a pressing need for better therapies. There are no oncolytic viruses or checkpoints inhibitors approved for use in that indication,” he said.

A man looks at the camera

“We are investing in our US operations and opening US trial sites by the end of the year as we advance towards phase-two trials,” said Akseli Hemminki. Image: Akseli Hemminki

TILT-123 is being trialled in combination with KEYTRUDA, an anti-PH-1 therapy registered by MSD.

Treated at Mayo Clinic, the patient is expected to complete enrolment in the first cohort of three patients as part of a phase-one trial comprising up to 15 patients. The two other patients in the first cohort are located in Finland.

TILT Therapeutics leverages cancer cell-specific oncolytic adenoviruses armed with molecules that can stimulate or suppress T-cells to enable immune response in patients to find and destroy cancer cells. Its European and US phase-one clinical programmes cover several cancer types, from ovarian cancer to head, neck and skin cancer.

Medicortex secures second grant from US DoD

Medicortex Finland, a Turku-headquartered company improving the diagnostics and treatment of traumatic brain injuries, has secured its second consecutive research grant from the US Department of Defense (DoD).

The roughly two million-euro grant is for an 18-month project that aims to develop a rapid biomechanical test capable of detecting biomarkers for concussion and mild traumatic brain injury in non-invasive body fluid samples, such as urine. The research project will kick off by the end of 2022.

The Finnish biotechnology company highlighted late last month that the project plan was subjected to a stringent qualification process, including pre-proposal and full scientific and programmatic reviews, at the DoD. No other Finnish company has received two consecutive grants from the DoD, estimated Adrian Harel, CEO of Medicortex.

The company is focusing presently particularly on developing biomarker-based diagnostics to detect traumatic brain injuries from saliva and urine. Its longer-term goal, though, is to develop new compounds with the potential to halt the progression of brain injuries and reduce the secondary degeneration.

Diagnosing traumatic brain injuries is a challenge faced by healthcare professionals around the world, told Harel. “We have been successful in the very difficult space of translating an idea through research to the clinic[al] stage.”

Medicortex has attracted funding also from 250 investors, Business Finland, ELY Centre and the EU.

Broad spectrum of ideas

Finnish companies are using their expertise also to develop various other areas of healthcare. Gubbe in September announced it is expanding its elderly care solution in the UK.

A man and a woman pose for the camera

Gubbe connects the elderly with youthful assistants. Image: Gubbe

The subscription-based service enables people who are concerned about the wellbeing of their elderly relatives to order a home visit from a carefully screened local young person, who can help the elderly relative with chores such as cooking or changing sheets. The service, thereby, not only helps the elderly keep active and cope with the daily life, but also creates jobs for young people.

“The UK elderly care market is ripe for disruption,” stated Sandra Lounamaa, co-founder of Gubbe. “There simply isn’t anyone in the market who offers reliable and customised home care like this.”

An indication of both the demand for and commercial potential of disruptive ideas in healthcare is the sudden emergence of health-focused funds. Courage Ventures in August said it is launching a new early-stage fund focusing on digital health startups in the Baltics and Nordics, signalling already the second such launch in Finland in 2022.

Before this year, no new health-focused funds had been set up in the country in more than 10 years.

Another healthy approach

Overhead view of hospital

Ecosir in September reported that it has been selected to provide a waste and laundry logistics system for Stavanger University Hospital in Norway. The system will cover the entire vacuum transfer system of the newly built hospital, including a connection with the surgical department to be built later.

Mauri Leponen, managing director of Ecosir, pointed out that the waste and laundry needs of a hospital are comparable to a dense city block.

“The amounts of waste and laundry are large and […] the size and weight of the bags to be moved are many times bigger than those in [a] standard urban waste system. This means a hospital system requires very high-level and efficient transfer technology,” he told. “All the elements have been developed for the most demanding hospital purposes. The systems are modular, so they are scalable in terms of space usage and required capacity.”

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