Project title: Improving immuno-oncology tools to fight cancer: the use of complex immune organoids for testing the efficacy of peptides coated oncolytic viruses (PeptiCRAd / PeptiENV)
Academic partner: University of Helsinki
Principal investigator: Professor Vincenzo Cerullo
Postdoc researcher: Mikaela Grönholm
Industry partner: Valo Therapeutics
The Finnish start-up company Valo Therapeutics and the Immuno Viro Therapy lab at the University of Helsinki are working to develop a 3D model that can predict the effects of immunotherapy in individual patients.
Common usage often classifies cancers based on their site of origin in the body: breast cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer. However, the same cancer can be a very different disease for different individuals.
“In fact it’s true to say that every patient has their own disease,” says oncology researcher Mikaela Grönholm from the Immuno Viro Therapy team at the University of Helsinki. This is why the current therapeutic approach of destroying the tumour at a certain body site is becoming outdated. A new strategy is emerging with the evolution of immunotherapy, which is focused on activating the patient’s own immune system.
Immunotherapy has achieved excellent results in the treatment of melanoma or skin cancer, for instance. But Mikaela says there are currently two obstacles to the wider adoption of immunotherapy: “We still know very little about who can benefit from the therapy and who can’t. And secondly, developing and testing treatments is an expensive process and we don’t yet have good testing models in place.”
The Finnish start-up company Valo Therapeutics is working closely with the Immuno Viro Therapy team at the University of Helsinki to find a solution to this testing problem. They are growing 3D mini-tumours that include both cancer tissue, the cancer microenvironment and the patient’s own immune cells. The team are also involved in the Academy of Finland’s iCAN cancer flagship project (Digital Precision Medicine platform).
It is noteworthy that the model is entirely anthropogenic and therefore works in the exact same way as in the human body. “The model will benefit everyone working on immunotherapy,” says Mikaela Grönholm, who is involved in the project as postdoc researcher.
Business cooperation opens up interesting research questions
Grönholm says that collaboration between an academic partner and a start-up company brings together the unique strengths of both parties and for the researcher provides an excellent vantage point over the way the business operates. “In the academic world you’re allowed to take risks, to be curious and to experiment, whereas a business will set specific targets for research and formulate research questions that are interesting from a drug development point of view.”
When researchers get to work with a start-up company, they also get the opportunity to influence and express their views about the technology under development. “I’m involved in creating tools that are immediately put to use in the company.”
Grönholm believes that collaborations between academia and business companies could still be expanded. That is why incentives such as FRIF’s Tandem funding scheme are so important.
Promising results from collaboration
The 3D model created by Valo Therapeutics and the University of Helsinki team is applicable to all aspects of immunotherapy development. What is more, the project will provide crucial information about the applicability of immunotherapy for different people. It makes use of the oncolytic viruses manufactured by Valo Therapeutics, which trigger the organism’s immune responses in the body. The team have now been using these viruses to test their model, and the results are promising. The next step is to raise the bar and enter more variables into the model.
Start-up companies and researchers both share a strong passion for problem-solving. “It’s unbelievable what cancer can do to the body. That is what makes cancer research so fascinating and so challenging. I want to find ways to cure cancer,” Grönholm says.