Mari Björkman: Cancer research – from idea to product

Numerous promising research targets are needed to create one pharmacological product. Patient benefit is the best reward for pharmacological researchers.

Since her childhood, cancer researcher Mari Björkman has been fascinated by how and why things work the way they do. Now Mari works in the Cell Pharmacology and Target Discovery unit at Orion in her dream job.

“Orion is the only Finnish pharmaceutical development company to conduct its own research in Finland. And in prostate cancer research, Orion is one of the global leaders,” Björkman says.

In international comparison Orion is a medium-sized pharmaceutical company, but it has invested strongly in its own research, which is shown by the pharmaceutical R&D pipeline.

“If I have a good idea and it shows promise in early trials, there is a channel ready to develop the idea into a final product for patients. I have seen a number of ideas created by my colleagues that have become pharmaceutical candidates for clinical trials.”

A clear purpose

One of the latest examples of successful pharmaceutical research is darolutamide, which blocks the growth of cancer cells.“It was great to receive the first results of its effects on patients.” At present, darolutamide is going through Phase III clinical trials.

Benefit gained by patients is her main inspiration, says Björkman.“Successful results make me feel that my work has a clear purpose. Orion organises training events for doctors, and they tell us how our products work in practice. Many patients have benefitted from our drugs.

Necessary choices

Björkman is currently working in a project on the Phase I trial of ODM-207. “We are investigating how ODM-207 inhibits gene expression of cancer cells and blocking of tumour growth.”

She also participates in a number of projects at various stages of research. “We are identifying new drug targets and developing tests to validate target mechanism in order to launch a pharmaceutical development project.”

Björkman studied molecular biology in Jyväskylä and genetics in Turku before her employment at Orion. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the identification of epigenetic targets in prostate cancer for therapeutic development using high throughput screening.

Björkman is happy she looked outside the academic world as well when searching for a research position. “The quality of research at Orion is very high. When a new method is introduced, we always have to validate and test it to ensure that it works as expected.”

Numerous ideas have to be tested to find a good one. “The most important result may be the one that shows the target does not work as supposed to. However good the original idea is, if it doesn’t work, we’ll have to let it go,” Björkman says.

Best thing about Orion: “What I love about Orion is that we all share the same goal and work for it together.”


Text: Johanna Paasikangas-Tella

20 September 2018