Bringing gene therapy closer
The biggest scientific breakthroughs at Kuopio University have been achieved by its research institute, which bears the name of the Finnish Nobel prizewinning chemist A.I. Virtanen. The event that has probably attracted most attention in scientific circles was the birth at the institute of a transgenic calf. Now this cow is the first of her kind in the Nordic countries and only the second in the whole world.
Transgenic animals develop from fertilised egg cells into which a gene from another organism has been spliced. In this instance, it was the gene that makes the substance that promotes the growth of red cells in humans. "The original intention was to use this cow to make a very precious medicine of which quite little is needed," explains the head of the A.I. Virtanen Institute, Professor Juhani Jänne. Since the institute also aims to breed transgenic production animals, the cow was later sold to a Dutch company with much experience of transgenic animals. A Finnish subsidiary of the company has an operation attached to the institute.
The A.I. Virtanen Institute is a very young research centre. The pattern of its work changed decisively in 1995 when it moved into new premises at the university. Now it focuses on three areas of research. As Jänne explains. "Biotechnology and neural sciences had long been Kuopio University's main strengths. Molecular medicine and pharmacology were chosen as the third area of concentration, because they were so topical." Researchers with expertise in that sector were headhunted from other Finnish universities on an unusually large scale.
In biotechnology, and especially in its veterinary sub-sector, the institute is in the international vanguard. It has two targets in its sights: producing therapeutically valuable proteins in large animals and using genetically-engineered rodents to study a variety of diseases that afflict humans.
The primary concentration in molecular medicine is on genetic treatments for cancer and to prevent sclerotic formations on artery walls.
In the former case, research focuses on splicing a so-called suicide gene into cancer cells. As Jänne explains: "Splicing in a gene taken from, say, the herpes virus infects the cancer cell with herpes. The cell can then be treated with anti-herpes medicines, which the body can tolerate considerably better than cancer drugs."
The first gene transplant into a cancer patient was done in Kuopio in summer 1995. It involved inserting a so-called marker gene into a tumour in the patient's brain rather than actual treatment. Although therapeutic gene transplants have already begun in Kuopio (they involved splicing a so-called suicide gene into a brain tumour), there is still a long way to go - perhaps into the next millennium - before this kind of treatment becomes commonplace.
The institute is also prepared for a long haul in the field of brain research. The biggest advances so far have been in the development, together with the pharmaceutical industry, of a drug treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Molecular biology has opened up completely new possibilities in this area. Kuopio University is taking part in a worldwide effort to find a treatment for the disturbances in brain functioning that age brings.