New pharmaceuticals and forms of medical treatment are explored and developed extensively in the Faculty of Mathematics and Science at the University of Jyväskylä. Professor of Practice Sauli Vuoti from the Department of Chemistry contributes to cooperation, which aims at generating in Jyväskylä new kinds of research and innovations concerning the promotion of health and well-being.
In medicine, research knowledge has helped overcome many diseases, and there is a continuously increasing need for new research knowledge to find out the causes of health problems and also to develop new drugs and treatments.
At the University of Jyväskylä, research on medicinal substances is pursued at the Department of Biological and Environmental Science, the Department of Chemistry, and the Nanoscience Center (NSC). The faculty’s various research teams actively cooperate with each other as well as on an international level.
Herpesviruses as an aid in cancer treatment
Viruses are commonly regarded as harmful pathogens. Nowadays, however, we know that some viruses can also be extremely useful from the human point of view, and they can be used to, for example, eliminate cancer cells.
In the Department of Biological and Environmental Science, docent Maija Vihinen-Ranta with her research team investigates the functioning of herpesviruses in host cells. The study is funded by the Academy of Finland, Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, and the EU Horizon Programme.
“Our research project yields further knowledge about the interaction between herpesvirus and host cells,” Vihinen-Ranta states. “This knowledge can be utilized in the development of viral treatments of cancer.”
Viruses spread efficiently from one tumor cell to another while also destroying new cells. Human herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) is one of the viruses used for oncolytic cancer treatments. HSV-1 is a DNA virus, that is, it duplicates its genome and assembles new virus particles in the cell nucleus making use of the proteins of the cell and also energy produced by the cell’s mitochondria.
The reproduction cycle of HSV-1 in a cell is already fairly well-known in some respects. What is less well-known is how the stress inflicted on the cell by the virus affects the cellular functions and structure of the nucleus and how these changes influence the transport of the viral capsids within the nucleus.
Once the viral transport mechanisms are identified, it becomes possible to develop means to enhance the progression of the viral life cycle. This enables the viral-induced cell lysis and the activation of specific immune responses against cancer cells.
“The combination of two fields of science, biology, and biophysics, enables high-standard research and the investigation of mechanisms pertaining to virus–cell interactions,” Vihinen-Ranta describes. “We use top-level imaging techniques in our research and integrate them with high-quality image analysis.”
Research for fighting against antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections
Professor Perttu Permi leads a joint research team of the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Biological and Environmental Science, which the studies structure, dynamics and interactions of biomolecules using NMR spectroscopy as their main tool. The team is interested in several pathogens, e.g., Staphylococcus aureus . S. aureus and its methicillin-resistant strain (MRSA), in lay terms known as hospital bacteria, is resistant to penicillin derivatives or so-called beta-lactam-based antibiotics.
“Staphylococcus aureus is known for its ability to rapidly develop resistance to many antibiotics,” Perttu Permi says. “Antibiotic resistance or more generally antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is nowadays an extensive global problem for health care and economies, as annually more than a million people die solely because of S. aureus infections.”
Permi’s research concentrates on the cell wall of S. aureus. The protective cell wall of bacteria consists mostly of peptidoglycan or a mesh-like macrostructure formed of polymerized glycan and peptides.
Penicillin-derived antibiotics inhibit the enzymic synthesis of peptidoglycan, causing bacterial cell wall to break and consequently killing the bacteria. Permi’s research team is studying enzymes that break up peptidoglycan by hydrolysing their amide bonds.
“These enzymes can break up a bacterial cell in minutes,” Permi says, “and they do not require the cell to be metabolically active. We aim to study, on the one hand, the role of these enzymes in maintaining bacterial cell walls, and, on the other hand, based on this knowledge, to develop them into antibacterial substances or medicines of higher effectiveness, wider usability and better adaptability.”
Professors Varpu Marjomäki and Lotta-Riina Sundberg study microbial drug resistance. The new EU-funded IN-ARMOR project launched at the beginning of May searches for new solutions to microbial drug resistance.
The aim is to introduce new kinds of substances that induce the immune system and can enhance the body’s own innate microbial defence mechanisms to prevent microbial drug resistance and to reduce the occurrence of the most dangerous drug-resistant infections.
Under development: antiviral surfaces
Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology Varpu Marjomäki has long studied various molecules and already existing drugs, including both new synthetic molecules and molecules of natural origin.
She is known for her enterovirus research, and in recent years she has extended her studies to coronaviruses as well. Although enveloped and non-enveloped viruses differ greatly from each other, they also have much in common. For example, they have a structurally highly similar enzyme that breaks up proteins, the functioning of which could be effectively prevented by the same means.
Marjomäki’s research team has found out that both virus categories can be fought against by means of several biobased raw materials found in Finnish forests. These are called antivirals, meaning they can kill viruses from skin and other surfaces.
Marjomäki’s research findings have shown that the antivirals found so far work by directly eliminating the infective capability of viruses.
“One of our research projects aims at developing new, safe materials in accordance with sustainable development, which can be used in preventing infections, for instance. The aim is to develop applications such as more ecological and antimicrobial protective masks.”
“We cooperate with several companies in order to develop this kind of functional materials,” Marjomäki says. “Biobased other solutions of natural origin are of high interest for the companies, and we have here an opportunity for pioneering work.”
A patent has just been granted to antiviral products of natural origin. They are the result of cooperation between JYU and Natural Resources Institute Finland. In addition to the antiviral properties of fungi-originated ingredients, the products include many other properties which can be utilized in future applications.
Varpu Marjomäki has also developed new drugs for the prevention of viral infections. As a result of this development work at the University of Jyväskylä, a molecule, vemurafenib, has been patented. It is particularly effective against enteroviruses and has previously been used as a cancer drug.
“We have just published a study where we analyse the mechanism of this molecule, and how it functions differently in a viral infection than in cancer prevention,” Marjomäki says.
Phages as an aid in the treatment of troublesome diseases
Professor Lotta-Riina Sundberg’s attention is focused on bacterial diseases. Phage therapy makes use of bacterial viruses, phages, in treating diseases, and it offers an alternative form of treatment alongside drugs.
Recently, Sundberg has been particularly interested in mucosal surfaces, which serve as the first line of defence in the immune system. The mucosa offers a habitat for a specific microbiome where many phages are waiting for the appearance of their host bacteria.
“I want to understand what kinds of influence the phages have there, how the phages settle there and recognise and kill pathogenic bacteria,” Sundberg says. “When we understand these mechanisms, we may be able to transplant phages and thus prevent the outbreak of diseases.”
There is a patent pending which concerns an enhanced method for producing, detecting and isolating such phages.
Sundberg explains that the method is useful especially in working with phages that infect such pathogenic bacteria that are “troublesome” and immune to traditional methods.
Senior lecturer Matti Jalasvuori from the Department of Biological and Environmental Science is also working to harness phages as medical tools for the treatment of bacterial diseases. In 2022, he founded a biotechnology start-up, PrecisionPhage, which develops phage technology that can replace or supplement antibiotic treatments. The company operates in a large international field.
Active pharmaceutical ingredients require specific production methods
In the Department of Chemistry, Professor Petri Pihko leads a research team to develop new, more efficient methods for the production of active pharmaceutical ingredients. The development and production of drugs are based on the concetp that a complex pharmaceutical molecule is compiled bit by bit from simpler starting materials.
This is difficult because chemical synthesis, as this process is called, often involves surprises and drawbacks. However, the pharmaceutical ingredients or molecules needed for research still must be produced in one way or another.
To overcome such difficulties, Pihko’s team is developing new tools based on adjustable, catalytic methods. The team has cooperated with several Finnish pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers.
“Finland has plenty of expertise related to drug manufacturing as well as industry that also needs new workforce,” Pihko summarises. “We have long been a desired educational and cooperation partner.”
Cooperation with industry must be increased
Sauli Vuoti holds the title of docent in clinical pharmaceutical chemistry and biomedicine and is also an internationally renowned researcher started this year as professor of practice specialised in medicinal development and clinical-translational oncology at the Department of Chemistry, University of Jyväskylä.
His research team is currently pursuing both basic research and clinical research on breast cancer, lung cancer, liver cancer, glioblastoma, myeloma as well as on psychosocial support for patients.
Vuoti finds important societal impact , applied research, innovative thinking and the creation of cooperation of a new kind.
To make use of ideas, we need increasing cooperation with industry.
“Our faculty is engaged in high-quality and well-rounded pharmaceutical research on an international level,” Vuoti says. “It is also extremely important to be able to describe what purposes research can be used for in the future. I want to make my contacts available to research teams, so that we can jointly develop our research and find new possibilities for applications.”
Aiming to increase closer cooperation with healthcare
Vuoti feels that by increasing local cooperation Jyväskylä can be made into an even more significant centre of medicine.
“Our major cooperation partners include Nova Hospital and Biobank Central Finland,” Vuoti says. “Cooperation with them certainly helps create a new kind of research and innovations for the promotion of health and well-being in Jyväskylä.”
Sauli Vuoti shares research knowledge through his podcast series titled Tiedettä Tunteella (Science with Feeling), which offers up-to-date and research-based knowledge about medicine and the Finnish health care system. The series features Finnish top professionals and introduces significant Finnish researchers and other professionals from our health care system.
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