The CoE’s main focus of research was the function of viruses, bacteria and cancer cells as well as the defence mechanisms of the human body.
Normally, an organism’s defence mechanisms are constantly working to fend off viruses and bacteria intruding the skin and mucous membranes. They also destroy the cancer cells that are generated in our body every day.
However, bacteria and viruses have developed mechanisms for deceiving the immune defence system so that they can intrude the body. Cancer cells, for their part, are capable of making use of migration molecules in white blood cells, allowing them to roam about the body and form deadly metastases. At the start of the research, our knowledge about these mechanisms was virtually non-existent.
The CoE involved leading experts in basic research and one of Finland’s most prominent and successful areas of clinical medicine, i.e. oncology.
The research team was quite unique in its composition, allowing for the application of the results in basic research to clinical settings, disease diagnostics and patient care.
The CoE’s major research aim was to explore the mechanisms that control the movement of viruses, bacteria and cancer cells and the way in which a normally functioning defence mechanism can render them harmless. The unit made use of the most advanced methods of cellular and molecular biology, imaging techniques and well-controlled patient materials.
It is crucially important to understand the mechanisms that govern the movement of viruses, bacteria and cancer cells as well as the immune system responses they elicit: they provide several target molecules and mechanisms that can be used in diagnostics, in monitoring diseases and in developing new medical drugs.
New treatments can alleviate patients’ suffering and prevent premature deaths. They can also help boost the competitiveness of the national economy – especially if product development jobs remain in Finland.
The CoE was headed by Professor Sirpa Jalkanen, who worked at the University of Turku and the National Institute for Health and Welfare. Other staff at the CoE included one professor, one laboratory director, 13 PhD researchers and 17 PhD students.
The CoE was well networked both nationally and internationally. It had partners from top universities around the world, including Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge. It also worked closely with the pharmaceuticals industry. The set-up was ideal for enhancing Finland’s international competitiveness and visibility.