4.3. 2015 Kuukauden kasvo

Juha K. Rantala screens drugs using cancer cells

Founded just under a year ago, Misvik Biology Corporation focuses on top research in biology and started out with a five-year research project. Quick reassessment of pharmaceutical substances is of interest particularly to pharmaceutical companies which are disappointed with lengthy development projects.

There was a risk of losing the five-year research funding granted to Dr Rantala and his partners in March 2014, when the starting of the project in VTT’s cancer research unit in Turku miscarried. Special researcher Juha K. Rantala made a quick decision and founded his own company, Misvik Biology, to keep the research in Finland. He worked at VTT in Turku since the unit was set up to the year 2011 and developed new kinds of cell spot microarray methods there for his doctoral dissertation, so he knows the subject inside out. After the completion of his dissertation he spent three years as a researcher in Portland, Oregon, United States at the Department of Biomedical Engineering in Oregon Health and Science University, and returned to Finland in early 2014.

“In the end I had just a couple of weeks of time for founding the company, but I had strong networks in place, and I was given access to a joint laboratory at the Bio Incubator in Turku Science Park, so I got started all right”, Dr Rantala says.

An entrepreneur’s life has gone well, although paperwork takes up a lot of time. He has used the pipette a lot, though, and the working days often last till eight in the evening.

The research partners in the project are Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and a private American research clinic. The research will continue to 2019, and Misvik’s role is to conduct drug screening on cancer cells.

“The project is really interesting. Our goal is to find out whether other pharmaceutical substances apart from actual cancer drugs have an impact on cancer cells. We have gathered a library of 1,200 approved pharmaceutical substances, ranging from cough medicines to cancer drugs, which we screen using cancer cells. There is great potential that, for example, an antibiotic or metabolism drug with minor side effects could impact cancer cells”, Dr Rantala says.

The benefit of cell spot microarray methods lies in the fact that cell spot microarrays can be created from very small pieces of tissue sample. It speeds up the research considerably. One microarray can be used to screen the functions of tens of thousands of genes simultaneously, while traditional methods only allow a few hundred genes to be screened with each microplate.

Drug development in transition

According to Dr Rantala, the research has attracted a lot of interest in pharmaceutical companies, because many of them have gone through lengthy development projects in which clinical studies have resulted in a disappointment.

”I’ve been listening to presentations of large companies, and it seems that the drug development is focusing more on biology again. There is great potential, because the drug selection is not yet done for each patient. There is plenty of room for improvement in personalisation of drugs, and gene testing methods are being developed”, Dr Rantala says.

Drug development has differentiated into highly specialised units each of which provides services to their own sector. Dr Rantala also envisions on developing service to academic research groups, and some have already been attracted as customers.

“I know from my experience at VTT that developing a service business is difficult. Our vision is to use the microarray methods to develop new tools that speed up the research and reduce its costs.

At present, Misvik also employs two of Dr Rantala’s colleagues from VTT, Rami Mäkelä and Vesa Hongisto.

Rewarding times in Oregon

Born and bred in Turku, Juha Rantala enjoys being back in town, although he would not have minded staying in Portland. The Oregon Health and Science University conducts top research in quite a different scale compared with Finland. The university’s annual budget is 2.5 billion dollars, of which 98.5% is privately financed.

“I think that private financing should be easier in Finland, too. In Oregon I received, for example, a cheque of one million dollars from a local flour manufacturer for our research group after he had visited our research facilities. On the other hand, I noticed that the standard of research and education in Finland is among the best in the world. Although I was a member of top teams, they were not ahead of us”, Dr Rantala sums up.

He liked the Oregon nature although he did not get a chance to try fly fishing on Columbia River. He used to walk to work through the woods in an hour and a half. The 9-year-old twin daughters in particular hoped that the family would move back to Finland. The school days are shorter here and in Uittamo you can play outdoors without being afraid of a kidnapping. Juha Rantala can continue his leisure activities: boating, staying at summer cottage, fishing, and cycling.

“I collect classic vehicles from the 1960s. It started with love for Vespa, and now I also have a boat and a VW Beetle from the 60s in the garage”, he says.

Text and photos: Anne Kortela

Juha K. Rantala

  • born in 1978 in Turku

Education:

  • 2003 M.Sc., University of Turku
  • 2011 Ph.D., University of Turku
  • 2003–2011 Researcher, VTT Turku, development of gene screening technique using gene silencing method in Professor Olli Kallioniemi’s group
  • 2011–2014 Researcher, Oregon Health and Science University, Department of Biomedical Engineering, United States, Molecular Biology, Cell Biology 
  • 3/2014– Misvik Biology Corporation, founder and principal shareholder

Other:

  • 12/2013, discovery on cancer cell DNA repair mechanisms, published in Science magazine, developed in the EU-funded GENICA (Genomic instability in cancer and pre-cancer) project, Co-ordinator Thanos Halazonetis.
  • Family: wife Pia and 9-year-old twin daughters
  • Leisure activities: boating, fishing, cycling, collecting classic vehicles