20 years of science – back to the future

Society and science have undergone major changes over the last two decades. There have been many advances in medicine, such as digitalization and the development of research tools and techniques. On the other hand, some developments may have had negative impact on research, for example, the increase in research-related bureaucracy or short termism of funding, which many feel slows down and hampers research. For this blog, we interviewed three leading researchers working at the University of Oulu, Professors Vesa Kiviniemi, Terhi Piltonen and Tuula Salo, to get their views on such changes and how they see the future of their field.

According to Vesa Kiviniemi, Professor of functional neuroimaging, both improvements and challenges have arisen within the last two decades: “Tools are getting better and resources also.” On the other hand, he feels that the science bureaucracy has gotten multiple times more complex: “A research permits can take a year to obtain and GDPR regulation is hindering normal procedures.” However, he is glad that the funding for research has gotten better, at least “once you have important results finally”, he continues.

Kiviniemi was the Pioneer of resting state fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) research in EU. In 2012 he started using ultrafast magnetic resonance encephalography (MREG) with multimodal neurosensing tools. "We also study genetic mice models with MP (multiphoton microscopy) in collaboration with Professor Lauri Eklund's group in Biocenter Oulu, in research of pulsations driving glymphatic brain clearance", he adds.

The focus of Kiviniemi’s work has been on developing treatments for conditions with glymphatic failure. The research field is challenging: “We have not been able to produce effective treatments for many neurological conditions like Alzheimer or intractable epilepsy. However, new ideas on blood brain barrier function, the insulation and water filtering/convection, have improved our understanding of pathophysiological mechanisms and thus given us new tools to treat the brain.”

From Kiviniemi’s perspective, the future in his field seems like a ying/yang thing: “We need to get more medical doctors to do more real science and not drown them in clinical work. That is the only way to improve medical treatment and diagnostics of diseases at the end of the day. “

There is still to improve in women’s health care

Terhi Piltonen, Professor in obstetrics and gynecology, talks about the fast movement of science within the last 20 years: “There are new technologies, translational research utilizing tissues completely new way, such as single cell technologies, organoids and so on” she lists. “Patient centered approaches are more important and are taken into consideration when focusing research priorities. Dissemination of the research results is more effective and intensive but also, we struggle to compete with non-scientific information and poor-quality data.”

Piltonen practices at the Reproductive Endocrinology and IVF Unit in the Oulu University Hospital. Her team has focused on the lifelong health in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and lately, also on early onset of PCOS utilizing register data sets, mouse models and clinical sample sets.

According to Piltonen, the field of medicine has leaped big steps as for pathogenesis, diagnostics and treatment. “On the other hand, we should also remember that sometimes new drug may give 2 months more time to live but with the side effects the quality of life is poor. It is also important to listen to patients and their needs. We have also come to a point where we, as a society, can’t afford all medicines available and we need to continuously make choices about what and who to treat. People are also more aware of treatment options available. It is sometimes difficult to justify the choices by resources or that the data is not clinically significant even though it would be with statistical analysis”, Piltonen says.

Piltonen sees the positive progress in her field: “More focus is put on women’s health and women all over the world have better health than decade ago. Also, more industry-driven money is available. Women start matter -this is wonderful. However, we still need, even modern societies, to acknowledge the health burden related to gynecological conditions and I think we are moving in the right direction. She reminds that there is also more work to be done globally: ”Still, we have many societies that do not value women’s health and therefore we need to continue to push, educate, publish and disseminate information.”

Digitalization and personalized medicine improve patient care

Our society has also faced major changes because of digitalization. Tuula Salo, Professor in oral pathology, thinks that it has led to several improvements: “Digitalization helps both clinicians and researchers to share their knowledge and communicate easily.”

Salo is one of the most experienced researchers on our campus. Her research group was established in 1990s and she has supervised roughly 40 PhD theses so far. Her research focuses on tongue cancer and aims to improve the correspondence of cell culture models to “real life”, the patients. “Previously, the tumor microenvironment was overlooked, but now its importance has been recognized. When this knowledge is applied to for example drug testing, it can lead to development of novel, personalized cancer treatments in the future”, she describes.

The knowledge on the diseases of oral mucosa, area of Salo’s expertise, has increased among both dentists and patients: ”Partly because of increased awareness, the diagnostics and treatments have also improved.” However, she sees some unfortune changes that affect the research today: “When I started as a young group leader, the university provided more resources: money for reagents, laboratory technicians and other support. If one got a grant it came as an extra on top of that. We also had better opportunities for early career professionals as departments had positions for assistants.”

Salo is also concerned about the “fluctuation” of research groups: “It would be beneficial to have more stability in research groups and their funding. The expectations for professors are also increasing but the tools for the work are left incomplete. Especially in the field of dentistry, the situation in the university has become really challenging.” She also feels that focusing research subjects too strongly, for example by funding agencies or the institute itself, may restrain possible novel innovations. “University should encourage free research” she reminds.

As a tip for the future scientists, she concludes “Find your own focus and niche of research, work smartly and build strong, powerful networks.” Although many things have changed within two decades, these words were probably as true back 20 years ago, as they are now and in the future.

In this blog, we have highlighted the themes from some of the key topics that will be featured in the 20th anniversary event of the upcoming Kontinkangas Campus Science Day, taking place on 8th November 2023, under the title: “20 years of science – back to the future”.

Ever since the first Science Day was organized, the day has been an inspiring platform for scientists to share their recent research findings, discuss daily topics and get to know each other. Importantly, the event provides an opportunity for students and early career researchers to present their projects and familiarize themselves with the research on campus.

Text by:

Senior Research Fellow Pirjo Åström, Research Unit of Biomedicine and Internal Medicine, Faculty of Medicine

Senior Research Fellow Virpi Harila, Research Unit of Population Health, Faculty of Medicine