Johanna Ivaska and Lauri Nummenmaa receive €2.5 million in EU funding for cancer research and research in negative emotions

University of Turku Professors Johanna Ivaska and Lauri Nummenmaa have received significant research funding from the European Research Council ERC. Ivaska received funding for a project that aims to discover how the biological limits of a healthy body influence cancer progression. Nummenmaa’s project examines the link between a person’s negative emotions and their physical well-being.

The European Research Council ERC granted Ivaska and Nummenmaa €2.5 million in Advanced Grant funding for a period of five years. It is the largest personal research grant available in Europe, given to established, leading principal investigators who have a track-record of significant research achievements.

“The ERC Advanced Grants are one of the most competed funding in Europe, which requires that the research idea is at a top international level. Through the University’s Research Services, we offer extensive support for ERC grant applications to ensure that researchers succeed as well as possible in these calls,” says Maria Maunula, Research Funding Specialist at the University of Turku.

Understanding the mechanisms of cancer metastasis will support drug development

Johanna Ivaska, Professor of Molecular Cell Biology at the University of Turku, the K. Albin Johansson Professor at the Finnish Cancer Institute, and group leader of the Turku Bioscience Centre and InFLAMES Flagship, has been granted funding for a project to assess how the natural biological limits of a healthy body prevent or contribute to the spread of cancer in the body.

“Many localised cancers are currently curable with surgery and medical treatment, but advanced and metastatic cancers are often fatal. The mechanisms of cancer metastasis are still poorly understood and no targeted drugs have been developed to combat them. In the funded project, we will study the interaction between cancer tissue and healthy tissue in patient samples and test our findings of the mechanisms of cancer metastasis using different laboratory tests,” says Ivaska.

Johanna Ivaska received the ERC Advanced Grant for her BorderControl project. (Photo: Suvi Harvisalo / University of Turku)

The goal of Ivaska’s research group is to understand how breast and pancreatic cancer spread from the local tumour to the surrounding tissue and how cancer cells metastasise. They are searching for biomarkers to assess cancer malignancy and new drug development targets for the treatment of metastatic cancer.

“This is the third time I have received ERC funding. We have received these prestigious grants for our research group at every stage of my career. This is a great example of how long-term, world-class biomedical research can be carried out in the research environment of the University of Turku and the Turku Bioscience Centre,” Ivaska expresses.

Interactions between the brain and organs may play a key role in psychiatric disorders

Lauri Nummenmaa, Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience and Modelling at the Turku PET Centre, was granted funding for a project to model the functions of the emotional networks of the brain and body and their impact on somatic health and mental well-being.

“Negative emotions are a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, which, in turn, cause anxiety. This highlights the link between a person’s negative emotions, bodily functions, and somatic health. Interactions between the brain and organs may play a key role in psychiatric disorders, but these interactions are not yet well understood,” says Nummenmaa.

Nummenmaa’s research group is tackling this issue with whole-body PET imaging, which measures the physiology of the brain and the body’s emotional networks. Researchers are looking for bodily pathways linked to the onset of anxiety and cardiovascular diseases. This completely new imaging technique provides a novel viewpoint into system-level phenomena at a whole body scale.

“All research aims to create innovation, boost business life, and improve people’s well-being. Anxiety and cardiovascular diseases have a significant impact on people’s health and well-being worldwide, and this research opens up new possibilities for disease diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and for other related innovations,” says Nummenmaa.