Flagship for biological drugs develops new treatments for chronic diseases

Selected to the Academy of Finland’s Flagship Programme for the years 2020–2024, the GeneCellNano Flagship seeks to speed up the introduction of new biological drugs for severe chronic diseases. The Flagship is led by Academy Professor Seppo Ylä-Herttuala at the University of Eastern Finland, with Professor Seppo Vainio from the University of Oulu as its deputy director. Other partners in the Flagship include the University of Helsinki, Aalto University and the Finnish Red Cross Blood Service.

The Gene, Cell and Nano Therapy Competence Cluster for the Treatment of Chronic Diseases (GeneCellNano) develops new biological drugs, i.e. so-called ATMP products, biomarkers and diagnostics for common chronic diseases. Innovations, manufacturing technique development and commercial exploitation of research findings stand at the core. The Flagship brings together all Finnish frontline gene therapy, cell therapy and nanotechnology researchers, clinical resources, leading companies and third sector actors, creating an ecosystem that has potential to become a world leader in the field. The Flagship involves 30 companies in Finland and abroad, and it also has extensive research networks in the EU, the US, and Japan.

ATMP products are a new and rapidly evolving group of biological drugs, encompassing gene therapy, cell therapy, nanoparticles and vesicle-based new treatments. “Finland already hosts an extremely strong and internationally esteemed research community in ATMP product research and commercial manufacturing. The mission of the Flagship is to further strengthen this research and its commercial potential, says Professor Seppo Ylä-Herttuala, whose research group is an internationally recognised pioneer in gene therapy.

The GeneCellNano Flagship develops new treatments for cardiovascular diseases and age-related macular degeneration, as well as for brain, ovarian and bladder cancer. The Flagship will also create a technology platform for the manufacturing of vaccines that are based on gene transfer with the help of adenoviruses.

Several research groups from the University of Eastern Finland’s A.I. Virtanen Institute for Molecular Sciences, School of Pharmacy, Institute of Biomedicine, and Institute of Clinical Medicine are involved in the Flagship, focusing especially on gene, liposome and nanoparticle therapies. Other topics of research include cell therapy and the use of extracellular vesicles in the treatment of diseases.

At the University of Oulu, the Flagship involves researchers from Biocenter Oulu, Infotech Oulu, Kvantum Institute and the Faculty of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine. “Their specific focus is on functional pre-clinical testing of gene, liposome and nanoparticle therapies in in vivo and in vitro disease models by utilising infrastructures that are at an international scale”, says Professor Seppo Vainio. In addition, the researchers will identify new biomarkers for the target diseases by determining molecules present in vesicles, and they will develop diagnostic methods on that basis.

At the University of Helsinki, the Flagship involves researchers from the Faculty of Pharmacy, with Professor of Biopharmacy Marjo Yliperttula as the Principal Investigator. At the University of Helsinki, a specific goal is to develop therapies that are based on genes, liposomes, nanoparticles and extracellular vesicles. In addition, the researchers will develop novel label-free analysis techniques and technologies to study the intracellular mechanisms of the above-mentioned particles, and they will also develop dosing techniques that are based on cell-based biomaterials.

The role of researchers from Aalto University’s Department of Physics in the Flagship is to design and implement self-organised nanosystems via which biological drugs can be guided to their target. “My research group specialises in self-organised nanomaterials. We study how their structures and function can be modified by using different stimuli, and how artificial intelligence can be used to guide their function,” Professor Olli Ikkala says.

Besides bringing novel and effective treatments for chronic diseases, the GeneCellNano Flagship aims to significantly increase both domestic and foreign investments in gene, cell and nano therapy, and to create new jobs and companies in the biotechnology and drug industries.

The Flagship Programme is an instrument that supports high-quality research and increases the economic and societal impact emerging from the research. GeneCellNano is one of the four new Flagships to secure funding from the Academy of Finland’s supplementary budget for the years 2020–2024. The Academy of Finland is prepared to fund the Flagship by nearly 10 million euros. The Flagship is also significantly supported by the universities’ own strategic funding as well as by several EU, corporate, domestic and international sources of funding.

Academy of Finland press release

Last updated: 25.11.2020