Turku is a minor bio-miracle
Turku has entered so powerfully into the spirit of the age of biology that there is every justification for talking of a bio-phenomenon, with a bio-miracle just around the corner. BioCity, the biggest single concentration of experts in the field of biotechnology to be found in the Nordic countries has come into being there. To ensure a completely unbroken chain of expertise in this sector, a complex called Bio Valley is now being put in place in Turku to provide companies with production and product-development facilities tailored to their special requirements. The first tenants are due to move into Bio Valley in autumn 2001.
The biotechnology sector is enjoying very strong growth in Finland generally, but Turku believed in its potential even before it attracted the attention of the world's investors after the first flush of intoxication with IT had somewhat evaporated. Biotechnology experts in the region created a cooperation network without parallel in Finland.
A considerable number of pharmaceutical and diagnostics companies are based in and around Turku. The University of Turku and its Swedish-speaking counterpart Åbo Akademi have cooperated very successfully with the business sector. A large proportion of biotechnology companies are likewise based in Turku. With all of this expertise approaching critical mass, the only thing to be expected is a "bio-miracle".
Cell communications the road to ultra-precise medicines
BioCity Turku is an umbrella organisation within which about 600 persons from various universities and institutes are working in several research teams. It has also been the birthplace of several of Finland's best-known medical-development companies, such as Biotie Therapies, Hormos Medical and Juvantia Pharma. In summer 2000 Biotie Therapies became the first Finnish biotechnology company to list on the Helsinki bourse.
The support organisation for BioCity - and also for the biotechnology companies in the region - is the Turku Biotechnology Centre, which is headed by Professor Riitta Lahesmaa. She has been in that position for a couple of years and before that spent eight years in the USA, first as a researcher at Stanford University and then with companies in the pharmaceuticals sector.
The Biotechnology Centre began as a community of 20 people in the early 90s and now employs around 140. Ten or so different teams all have their own projects, but the common denominator across the board is examining cell communications.
"Cells have antennas which are constantly ready to receive or transmit messages. When they receive a message, it triggers a chain of communication which is an enormously dynamic event. A human being is a vast network of cells, and we still know very little about that network. A lot of messages pass back and forth within it and there are many things that can go wrong and lead to an unfavourable outcome. Studying the ways in which cells communicate is really fun," enthuses Professor Lahesmaa.
"Research groups are working on a variety of cells. One group is looking at how cells die, another at what happens when they become stressed. My group is studying lymphatic cells, i.e. the ones belonging to the body's defence mechanism, and their significance in relation to such things as the genesis of asthma and allergies," she says.
All chronic diseases are an enormous burden on the economy and the more of them that require hospital treatment, the bigger the bill that society must pay. According to Professor Lahesmaa, the reason why an illness becomes chronic is often the fact that the most appropriate treatment is not found in the early stages.
"Our hope is that we shall gradually gain a somewhat better understanding of what is involved in each particular illness. As things are now, many treatments are based on empirical knowledge. I believe we are on the way to finding the kind of information that will revolutionise treatment methods. Today, a whole group of patients are treated in the same way. It would be better, however, if it were known that a particular patient's illness stemmed from lymphatic cells, whilst inflamed cells of some other kind were the explanation in someone else's case. If it were possible to use a drug tailored exactly to each variant of a disease, there would be the dual benefit of avoiding side-effects and a really effective impact where it was needed," explains Professor Lahesmaa.
Thousands of bits of DNA in a gene chip
One of the newest dimensions of the Turku Biotechnology Centre is its DNA microchip facility, which will provide a service for researchers all over Finland. A DNA chip is a kind of "gene board", to which thousands of fragments of DNA representing different genes are attached.
"With the aid of these gene chips it is possible to obtain a really comprehensive picture of what is happening in a cell or tissue at any given moment. The situation is very different from what it was only a few years ago, when a typical research group made a thorough study of a few genes and how they affected a cell's functioning. Now we have the tools to study the combined effects of thousands of genes at the same time," says Professor Lahesmaa.