Outi Vaarala leads innovative work to save cancer patients

According to Outi Vaarala, Orion has proven its capacity for novel and creative drug discovery. The pharmaceutical company convinced the well-known immunologist to return home to Finland to lead an innovative research project for a cancer drug.

It felt like an opportunity Outi Vaarala did not want to miss. Professor Vaarala had been working abroad for several years but when she was asked to lead Orion’s oncology research last spring, she did not hesitate to say yes.

“What convinced me was the company’s capacity for proprietary drug discovery. Darolutamide, the new prostate cancer drug launched in the USA this year, is the best example of this. I was really pleased to be able to get involved in innovative Finnish pharmaceutical development in a company that has what it takes to create something new,” says Vaarala.

Fix the immune system and destroy cancer cells

Vaarala has extensive experience in immunology and immuno-oncology and an impressive academic career. She has studied autoimmune diseases, or why human cells attack the body’s own tissue. This happens in rheumatism and type 1 diabetes, for instance. She has also studied vaccines.

“Immuno-oncology is about mending the body’s impaired immune system and getting white blood cells to destroy cancer cells. My work at Orion focuses on immuno-oncology, and it gives me an opportunity to apply all of my skills,” she says.

Before coming to Orion, Outi Vaarala worked in the USA in pharmaceutical R&D at AstraZeneca/Medimmune. Her years abroad have been fulfilling but returning to Finland was attractive also for personal reasons.

“I have three adult daughters, who live in Finland and Sweden, and an ageing mother in Finland and my husband’s work is in Helsinki. I used to miss my family especially at the weekends. In other words, I had plenty of reasons to return,” says Vaarala.

From disease mechanism to new drugs

At Orion Vaarala leads a research team that is improving our understanding of the biology of cancer diseases.

“We are trying to invent new targets for drug molecules and routes to those targets in order to destroy cancer molecules. The best thing for cancer patients would be for one of the drug molecules in Orion’s pipeline to lead to a new cancer drug that could save patients from dying of cancer.”

Drug discovery is not for impatient people, Vaarala says.

“It can take 15 years for a new idea for a cancer drug to evolve into a marketable product. During that time we are required to gain a thorough understanding of the entire mechanism of the disease. If we don’t do that, we won’t understand what causes the disease. That makes discovery impossible.”

Every team member plays an important role

Vaarala emphasises the importance of the team and co-operation in drug discovery. Nobody can develop cancer drugs alone and every research team member has a valuable role to play.

“It is the leader’s job to enable creative researchers to make the best of their abilities. That’s what I’m going to focus on.”

Vaarala intends to draw on her experience and her leadership training in her job leading Orion’s oncology research.

In drug discovery you need to know how to evaluate risks correctly: to build research paths carefully but also to have the courage to take bold leaps forward when its time to take risks.”

Vaarala says Finland and Orion have a lot to offer proprietary drug discovery. It is important to network and build international contacts.

“We have an immense pool of highly trained people, but Finnish companies have still found it rather difficult to achieve international success. As the head of oncology at Orion, I hope to change this.”

Outi Vaarala

  • Outi Vaarala, professor and immunologist, was appointed VP of oncology research at Orion in June. Her task is to improve understanding of the biology of cancerous diseases and grow Orion’s oncology research.
  • Vaarala is an experienced leader in drug discovery. Before she joined Orion, she headed drug discovery at AstraZeneca in Sweden and later at Medimmune/AstraZeneca in the United States.
  • Vaarala earned her doctorate in medicine at the University of Helsinki. She is a professor of paediatric immunology. She carried out further training at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Vaarala has served as professor of paediatric immunology at the University of Linköping and was appointed as professor of autoimmune diseases at the University of Lund. Before moving over to pharmaceutical research she was the Director of and Research Professor at the Department of Vaccinations and Immune Protection.
  • Vaarala has published more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific articles in internationally renowned scientific publications and worked as an expert at the European Medicine's Agency (EMA).


Text: Essi Kähkönen

8 October, 2019