IMMUNOCAP: Positive, upward spiral for immunology research in Turku

The Research Council of Finland granted EUR 12.3 million to the University of Turku in the Profi 7 call in early 2023. The international panel of experts assessed that the University’s application was of high quality and ranked it among the best applications. The Profi 7 area on immunology, Capitalising Immunity to Combat Disease or IMMUNOCAP, received a full score of 6/6 points!

This was a hard-won victory, but the time was also ripe for IMMUNOCAP. The COVID-19 pandemic increased general understanding of the importance of immunology for human health. Immunology has demonstrated its strength in other ways, as well: in recent years, new biological medicines that target the immunological system have revolutionised the treatment of some autoimmune diseases and many cancers. However, only some patients respond to these new forms of treatment.

Despite the advances, many immunologically transmitted diseases continue to be incurable, and treatment options are limited to the unspecific modulation of the overall immune system.  In order to move forward, it is vital to understand the mechanisms behind immunologically transmitted diseases, which will enable individual treatment.

High-quality immunological research as a permanent part of the University’s long-term strategy

The aim of the Profi funding is to steer and support universities in profiling their research and focusing it on selected areas of strength that have the most potential for further development. 

Immunological research by the University of Turku has been internationally renowned for decades. As a sign of its leading position, the University has had Centres of Excellence by the Research Council of Finland (Academy of Finland), academy professorships, academy research fellows and an academician.

As immunologists, we have been concerned about how to implement this top expertise in the research strategy of our University, as this would be the prerequisite for a systematic development of the field. It is delightful to note that our years of work have paid off: Before the IMMUNOCAP profiling funding, immunology received funding from the latest funding instrument of the Research Council of Finland, the InFLAMES Flagship.

The profiling funding and the flagship funding complement each other. IMMUNOCAP focuses on studying the immune system and its basic mechanisms. The research findings enable developing the prevention of immunologically transmitted diseases, early diagnostics and individual treatment.

We are strengthening the research infrastructure, bioinformatics and the application of AI to immunological issues. Recruiting talented researchers and ensuring they stay at the University are important. The aim is to strengthen and establish the position of Turku as a national and international research centre for immunology that attracts the best researchers and students.

The purpose and objectives of the InFLAMES Flagship, on the other hand, are broader. The flagship builds an ecosystem that includes not only universities but also local companies in the fields of pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. The aim is to co-operate in ways that speed up the development of new medicines and diagnostics methods.

Goal: strong international research centre

I have done research at Stanford, UCSF and Harvard for several years. These prestigious universities have managed to create a self-perpetuating,  positive upward spiral where premium research development, high-quality research and established and innovative researchers attract more and more talented experts. Turku has what it takes to become a similar forward-looking international immunology centre where success creates more success.

The profiling funding we have now received supports us on this path. In the future, I hope that the externally funded profiling and immunology focus continues to be a part of the University’s developing research strategy. Even in a multidisciplinary university, research needs spearheads that attract global top researchers.

Equipment is important, experts are vital

With the Profi 7 funding, we can improve the research infrastructure that enables high-quality research, which is the prerequisite for attracting the best researchers in the field. In addition to cutting-edge equipment, we need specialists who are familiar with using it and the latest key methods in immunology research.

The primary wish of the researchers in the project is to allocate the funds to hiring researchers who can familiarise themselves with the developing methods in the field and teach the other researchers in their use.

New research methods in the immune system produce massive amounts of data. Analysing this data requires quantitative biology and AI methods, which is why investing in bioinformatics experts is vital. The profiling funding will help also with this. New methods of mining data and combining it with, for example, the patient’s clinical response or electronic health records lead to a better understanding of the causes for diseases, the development of treatment and the prevention of diseases.

Our researchers work, for example, with prevalent national diseases, and we are in many ways pioneers in the field. The connection between basic and clinical immunology is strong in Turku, and we have demonstrated that we can implement the findings successfully in a clinical setting. It is important that with this funding, we can offer alternative career paths and tenure track positions at our University.

As the information, expertise and understanding of the mechanisms increase, more and more immune mediated diseases can be cured and even prevented in the near future. Turku now has the opportunity to lead the way in this development.

The author is a Professor in Systems Immunology, Director of the Turku Bioscience Centre, member of the InFLAMES management group and Director of the PROFI7 IMMUNOCAP project.