The Top of Evolution as an Adversary

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The goal of Sirpa Jalkanen, Johanna Ivaska, Klaus Elenius and Jukka Westermarck is not an easy one to achieve. They are aiming at besting the cell that has climbed to the top of evolution – the cancer cell.

– Cancer is a disease that kills. When I started my studies in the 1970s, 35-year-old men with coronary thrombosis were admitted to the hospital. Now, those suffering from the same disease are 70. However, today we get 20, 30 and 40-year-old patients who are dying of cancer, says Academy Professor Sirpa Jalkanen.

She is striving with her research group to find out how the human body’s own defence mechanisms operate when they are trying to kill the cancer cells.

– The normal cells are on the losing side of the battle. The cancer spreads and the metastases kill the person. We are studying how the cancer cells move, says Jalkanen.

Professor of Medical Biochemistry Klaus Elenius is looking for a targeted drug that could affect the signalling of the growth factors of cancer.

– At the moment, no one can treat widespread cancer. That is why the treatment is targeted on the primary cancer. We hope that we can find a way to prevent the development of metastases, describes Elenius the group’s efforts to stop the metastases from occurring.

Professor of Molecular Cell Biology Johanna Ivaska focuses on breast cancer and its integrins, i.e. cell adhesion receptors, which control the cell division and movement in the tissue. Changes in the cell adhesion receptors are central in the development of metastases. Ivaska’s goal is to find a new kind of insight into how the integrins operate and to produce a description of their message chains.

Research Director of Turku Centre for Biotechnology and the Professor of Cancer Biology Jukka Westermarck concentrates now on brain cancer and studies signal transmission within the cell. The goal is to cut off the signalling in the cancer cell.

The four researchers all have their own perspective into to the fight against cancer and they use a car as a point of comparison to the layman. Elenius describes that he researches the accelerator that speeds the cancer up, Westermarck studies the breaks, Ivaska the winter tires that keep up the speed and Jalkanen the final stop.

Text: Erja Hyytiäinen
Photo: Robert Seger
Translation: Mari Ratia