Oriontation competition’s winning trio engages in important research

Three winners have been awarded in different categories in the Oriontation – 100 ideas competition. The winners were Team Taina Pihlajaniemi, cancer research, University of Oulu, Team Pauli Turunen, Parkinson research, University of Eastern Finland, and Team Susana Garcia, modelling drug effects, University of Helsinki.

Cancer cells can be disrupted through extracellular matrix

Professor Taina Pihlajaniemi and her research groups from the University of Oulu carry out long-term research in connective tissue. “My working group is interested in the external world of the cell: the connective tissue, or the extracellular matrix (ECM). It functions as the building material, and the cells attach to this to gain form and durability.”

The formation of cancer cells is also affected by signals from the extracellular matrix. The cells also adapt the extracellular matrix to make it favourable for them. “We have also noticed in our studies that cancer cells create an extracellular matrix that is beneficial for them. One that is easy for them to grow in,” says Pihlajaniemi.

The research group is confident that new target molecules can be found to support diagnostics and treatments. “In addition to current established cancer treatments, we have found interesting opportunities to improve the treatment response by disrupting the functioning of certain extracellular matrices. If resistance to current therapies develops then it may also be beneficial to include another way of weakening the vitality of the cancer cells,” says Pihlajaniemi.

NeuroTracking – improving quality of life for Parkinson’s patients

As yet there are no sufficiently sensitive, accurate or objective methods to assess the progression and severity of Parkinson’s disease or the effect of the therapies. When presenting their research idea at the event marking the end of the Oriontation competition, researcher Pauli Turunen’s team explained that methods to observe the fluctuation of the motor symptoms are especially needed.

In Team Turunen’s NeuroTracking solution, a sensor attached to the skin measures electrical muscle activity and movements for several hours or days. As motor symptoms result from abnormal coordination of muscle activation, studying the activation and movement of muscles together can tell us more than studying movement alone.

The NeuroTracking research group has developed algorithms which effectively analyse data. These algorithms are based on the observation of 200 patients in different studies over 10 years. “As well as studying the effects of the treatment, the method may also provide benefits in the diagnosis of the disease in the early stages,” says Turunen.

Improving research into hereditary mytonic dystrophy type 1 (DM1)

Doctor Susana Garcia’s research group has developed a model based on the C. elegans roundworm, which can easily and cheaply identify both new drug targets and pharmaceutical ingredients that have a beneficial effect on the hereditary type 1 mytonic dystrophy.

“Unfortunately, there is no efficient drug for this disease yet. Our model helps to find and explain mechanisms that affect RNA toxicity in multicellular organisms,” says Susana Garcia.

Garcia explains that in studies carried out using the model, the group has gained additional information on the RNA toxicity of the DM1 type. Genetic screening has identified several new genes that define the pathogenesis of DM1. “One of the discoveries was also found to be a key factor of toxicity,” says Garcia.

Garcia’s research group believes that their model could also be used to evaluate treatment effects for other diseases.


Orion conducts its own research to develop drugs and treatments, and Orion’s Research Foundation also offers grants for medical research every year. As both Finland and Orion celebrated their centenaries last year, Orion wanted to highlight the world-class research conducted in different parts of Finland. The winners of the Oriontation 100 competition received their awards at the Valentine’s Day gala, where Orion’s research activities were also presented.


Text: Johanna Paasikangas-Tella