Postdoctoral Researcher, cell biologist Tiina Jokela investigates hereditary Lynch syndrome from a new perspective. This syndrome increases the person’s risk for several types of cancer. Jokela’s research focuses on the micro-RNA molecules in the blood. The aim is to create such risk profiles by means of machine learning that would tell whether a person has an increased risk to get cancer.
Postdoctoral Researcher Tiina Jokela has ended up in the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, through a slightly unusual route. Jokela is a Master in Biochemistry from the University of Kuopio, and she completed her doctoral degree at the University of Eastern Finland in 2011, in the field of cell biology. After her dissertation, Jokela did research abroad in Norway and the United States. In this post-doc period, her work focused on cancer and especially breast cancer research, which eventually brought her to Jyväskylä.
– The biggest risk factor for breast cancer is aging, and we study therefore what happens to a tissue when it age, Jokela tells.
Aging and its effects are studied in the Gerontology Research Center of the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences and the University of Tampere.
– Academy Researcher Eija Laakkonen’s study and research data on menopause caught my attention, and I contacted her. Laakkonen suggested participation in a cancer research project related to Lynch syndrome, and we applied for Marie Curie funding for my research, Jokela describes her engagement in the faculty.
The positive funding decision was received in March, and Jokela is now familiarising herself with the research team and data.
– The project, which now got funding, concentrates on analysing blood samples of people with hereditary Lynch syndrome. The syndrome predisposes people to cancer. In analysing the blood samples, we are looking for certain RNA molecules as indications of a developing cancer, Laakkonen explains.
Lynch syndrome is a hereditary syndrome that predisposes to, and increases the risk of several types of cancer. Most people with this syndrome get one or more cancers during their lifespan.
– The Lynch population provides a specific but good model for studying the occurrence of cancer. The same background mechanisms, such as physical activity and other lifestyle factors, apply to the development of cancer among the general population as well, Jokela says.
Lynch Syndrome Register enables comprehensive biomarker research
Jokela’s research focuses on analysing cellular micro-RNA molecules. For the analysis of the micro-RNA profile in the vascular system, a liquid biopsy, i.e. a usual blood sample, is sufficient. The profile can be used in predictions for cancer. Micro-RNA profiling has not been used before in Lynch syndrome research.
The study involves collaboration with Docent Toni Seppälä (Helsinki University Hospital and Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland FIMM) and Professor Jukka-Pekka Mecklin (Health Care District of Central Finland). Mecklin is a pioneer in this field and also a founder of the Lynch Syndrome Register. He works currently also at the University of Jyväskylä as a Research Director. Seppälä’s laboratory at FIMM grows organoid cultures by means of cells extracted from patients, which enables laboratory studies on the micro-RNA profiles and related changes identified in Jyväskylä.
– The collaboratively collected research material and the Lynch Syndrome Register enable this kind of comprehensive biomarker research. Also Doctoral Researcher Tero Sievänen is working in the same research project. He investigates more closely the connection between physical activity and the occurrence of cancer, Jokela tells.
The planned study is a textbook example of well-working collaboration. Laakkonen’s research team has expertise in physical activity and micro-RNA analysis, which brings added value to Seppälä’s and Mecklin’s projects.
– Our study would not be possible without data from the Lynch Syndrome Register and the sample collection organised by Seppälä. In addition, Seppälä offers Jokela an opportunity for a research period in his own laboratory, which means that we have access to organoid expertise as well, Laakkonen describes pointing out the significance of collaboration.
Detecting risk profiles by means of machine learning
Next, Jokela explains how the study of micro-RNAs is beneficial at the population level. – Our study aims at applying machine learning to create algorithms that would enable the recognition of profiles indicating predisposition to cancer.
– Machine learning takes advantage of the huge computing capacity of modern computers. The human brain is limited in this sense, but we can enter hundreds of variables to a program for processing, and it will then refine them into different patterns and formulas. We train the algorithm to identify certain patterns from the data, based on which it then creates an prediction algorithm. Using the algorithm, the application produces an estimation of the person’s risk of getting cancer, Jokela clarifies.
In the future, it would thus be possible to predict – by means of blood tests and a lifestyle survey, for instance – whether a person has an increased risk of getting cancer. The person could be guided toward a healthier lifestyle while monitoring changes in the risk profile.
– Along with Jokela’s hiring, the faculty’s cancer research line is reinforced and collaboration with the researchers of the health care district becomes more extensive. To my own research team, Jokela brings new methodological expertise. Her strong background in breast cancer research facilitates connecting the effects of aging and lifestyle with the research of other cancers as well, Laakkonen states.
What Marie Curie funding?
The European Union’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie funding supports research mobility. Funding is granted for high-level researchers who wish to return to do research in Europe. This funding is very harshly competed for, and annually only about 12% of the applications are approved. This year the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, received MSCA funding for two research projects, about 200,000 euros for each. In addition to Jokela, Postdoctoral Researcher Francesco Cenni was granted funding for his research on the regulatory factors of the neuromuscular system and muscle tension in young people with cerebral palsy.
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