Author: Tero Aittokallio, PhD, FIMM-EMBL Group Leader, Computational Systems Medicine group, Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), HiLIFE Unit, University of Helsinki, Finland

A group of Finnish researchers, including HERCULES research group leaders Aittokallio and Wennerberg as well as their group members working in the HERCULES project, Liye He and Anil Kumar, visited Nepal in the context of the 2nd International Conference on Bioscience and Biotechnology 2018 (ICBB-2018), which was themed this year Avenues of translational biomedical research in Nepal. The conference had a total of 180 registered participants. International guests included a delegation of 14 researchers from FIMM, University of Helsinki, among which were the former Director of the Institute, Professor Jaakko Kaprio and EMBL Group Leader Dr. Emmy Verschuren. FIMM researchers were also deeply involved in organizing the conference. Senior Researcher Markus Vähä-Koskela was the Co-Chair and Dr. Prson Gautam a member of the organizing committee, both from the Wennerberg group.

The conference was held at four different venues: Dhulikhel Hospital, Kathmandu University, Mirabel Resort and Pataleban Vineyard Resort. On-site visits were made to the Nepal Cancer Hospital and Research Center (NCHRC) and the Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology (RIBB). While Nepal is still a developing country, the first steps have already been taken toward rising in life science and to elevate the status of the country toward international standards in the health sector. The conference and associated meetings were extremely useful for understanding the current status of biotechnology and cancer research in Nepal, and to plan the next steps of future collaborations in the fields of personalized cancer medicine and biobanking. Nepal is also a third country partner in many EU-H2020 calls, so future funding proposals are possible within these life science areas.

Nepali connections

The University of Helsinki has a long history of hosting and graduating talented students from Nepal, Drs. Prson Gautam and Anil Kumar being two prime examples of this successful Nepali connection. Thus, FIMM, Helsinki University and even Finland as a country can benefit from the positive visibility and new links to promote Finnish knowhow, expertise and education in Nepal. Based on the visit, we are already setting up collaboration to study drug responses and molecular profiles of Nepali cancer patient samples, which display mutations and drug responses that are often different from those in Western populations. To make the drug response profiling more feasible in Nepal, the FIMM researchers will build a custom, low-cost anti-cancer drug testing plate in the Nepali cancer hospitals. It was also agreed that FIMM researchers will assist Nepali hospitals in how to establish their own biobanks, in terms of sample and data collection and standardization, using experience from Finland and other countries.

Tero Aittokallio in Nepal
Tero Aittokallio getting to know local traditions

Looking forward

We are currently setting up already the next research visit, this time to China, where the Chinese partners are interested not only in personalized medicine and biobanking, but also in clinical data analysis and modelling. This is a huge possibility to start mining the massive hospital health records and patient registries for multiple cancers and other diseases, hence offering an exciting test-bench for the computational models being developed in the HERCULES project. The visit is being planned in the context of 7th China-Finland Life Science Forum, and we are setting up a group of Finnish delegates.