15.6. 2015 Kuukauden kasvo

Cancer researcher for a national drug development centre

Jukka Westermarck, Research Director of Turku Centre for Biotechnology, speaks for establishing a national drug development centre, because he is frustrated about the fact that research results are only rarely developed into pharmaceutical products in Finland. He is very pleased about the positive attention the project has attracted from politicians.

Jukka Westermarck and his research group have been working at the cancer cell signalling mechanism since 2002. The real breakthrough took place in 2007 when they reported on a new mechanism that contributes to the development of normal cells into cancer cells. For the last five years, however, frustration has reigned, because the discovery could not be taken to the next level.

”More than 120 articles have been published on the subject, so it’s clear that is important enough for further development. We have tried to be on the frontline, but no progress has been made in drug research. For five years we have been banging our heads against the wall, although we have tried all ways of working that are possible in Finland”, Dr Westermarck says.

New opportunities in drug development have emerged recently, but it is bad for Finland if further development moves elsewhere, as that will considerably reduce the income from the inventions that stays in Finland.

A drug development centre to work on drug candidates

In Dr Westermarck’s opinion, the situation could be fixed by establishing a national drug development centre. It could extend the research to create drug candidates, and their commercialisation by pharmaceutical companies would be much more likely compared to basic research. Pharmaceutical companies do not want to take too big risks, but usually require a finished molecule.

”The drug development centre could evolve into a special unit that would serve all universities in Finland. Turku would be the place to set it up, because we have all the prerequisites for the operations in place. The model I have suggested works just like that in a number of competitor countries, for example in Sweden and Belgium”, Dr Westermarck says.

He is not promoting just his own cause, and is not looking to gain anything personally. Instead, he is genuinely concerned about the operating conditions of scientific research in Finland. In comparisons conducted by the Academy of Finland, the standard of science in Finland has fallen behind from the rest of the Western world. You could even say that Finland is a developing country in terms of science and innovation policy, although the solemn words of politicians suggest something completely different. As a result, senior researchers are leaving Finland, and many of them stay abroad for good.

Innovation policy does not work

”It was great that the politicians said positive things about the drug development centre in our panel discussion, but the outlook for the progress of all scientific research is poor in the light of the newly published government programme. I’m very disappointed with the decision that funding to research is reduced, although the situation is already really bad. The innovation policy has suffered a hard blow, and I believe that the research will continue to move abroad at a fast rate. I regularly hear about team leaders who have left Finland, because there are plenty of better conditions available”, Dr Westermarck says.

He admits that the researchers often have excessive expectations for the utilisation of their research results, but thinks that a national evaluation unit would be useful in that regard, too.

”It could provide an expert opinion also in case it is found that there are no markets for the research result and it is not worth continuing. I would be really pleased, if such information were available. Another thing that speaks for a national unit is that all non-disclosure issues and things like that would be agreed on. Researchers could easily submit their work for evaluation. There are many benefits”, Dr Westermarck says.

The efficiently functioning drug development centres in our competitor countries show that the operations are worthwhile. The results can be utilised up to the phase required by pharmaceutical companies, and research groups can focus on high-quality basic research. Then the resources are not wasted.

The standard of science is declining in Finland

Jukka Westermarck is certain that he would move permanently abroad to work as a researcher if he didn’t have a family.

”I wouldn’t stay here to suffer. Many things are wrong in Finland’s innovation policy. As a result the standard has continuously declined in recent years, and we can no longer talk broadly about top research. In my opinion it’s about the government’s choice of values”, he says.

”I’m nevertheless doing the work I want to do, and I’m happy to go to work every morning. The progress of the research group is a great source of inspiration. It’s wonderful to see young researchers develop during their doctorate work and start to challenge my thoughts. That’s very rewarding. I always have several foreign researchers in my group, at the moment around half, and we have seven different nationalities.”

Westermarck spent a couple of years in Germany after his doctoral dissertation and later three years in Tampere. Recently the whole family joined his sabbatical in Boston for five months. The family has, however, decided together that their permanent home is in Turku.

”It’s what we all want. We like it here and in the Turku Archipelago. We have a summer cottage on an island near Houtskari, and we spend a lot of time there and boating. I’ve almost given up my dear hobby fly fishing, because it doesn’t go together well with the cottage and boating. I do go fly fishing at least once a year now”, Dr Westermarck says and smiles.

Another dear hobby is tennis for which he finds time at least twice a week. Right now the recently operated ankle keeps him away from the tennis court, but it’s getting better. The professor also enjoys reading and has devoured five books while recovering from the ankle operation, including one by Kari Hotakainen, another by Khalid Hosseini and some detective novels.

Text and photos: Anne Kortela

Jukka Westermarck

Born in 1969 in Lehtimäki, Southern Ostrobothnia. Went to school in Espoo.

  • Research Director, Turku Centre for Biotechnology
  • Part-time Professor of Cancer Biology, Pathology, University of Turku
  • Research Professor of the Finnish Cancer Institute
  • Research group made a breakthrough in 2007

Education:

1996 University of Turku, Licentiate of Medicine
1998 University of Turku, Doctor of Medicine

Career:

1999–2001, EMBL, Germany, postdoc researcher
2006–2009, University of Tampere, Group leader
2001– Turku Centre for Biotechnology, Group leader

Leisure:

  • Lives in Turku
  • Family: wife and two children (10 and 7 years)
  • Hobbies: summer cottage and motor-boating with family, tennis, reading, fishing