By Chiara Facciotto & Tiia Pelkonen

The patient lies on the operating table, connected to monitors through wires and tubes and covered from head to toe with green drapes, only the abdomen remains exposed. There’s a rustle of the papery scrubs, hums and beeps coming from the machines, and the voices of the surgical team preparing to operate. The surgeon slices into the layers of skin, muscle and tissue with a scalpel. The layers are pulled and held back to reveal the intestine. The fatty ‘blanket’ over the internal organs, the omentum, normally soft and pliable, is covered in small hard bumps, the far reaching seeds of the original ovarian tumor. Using a device that cuts and cauterizes the flesh with a tiny puff of smoke, a smell of burning flesh and a beeping sound like a tiny truck backing up, the surgeon removes all visible cancer from the abdominal cavity.

Some of the tumor pieces are sent to the hospital pathologist. Since the patient gave permission to use her samples and data for research purposes, the rest of the tumor tissues will be analyzed by a large consortium of researchers. Ovarian cancer is a complex and constantly evolving disease: combining the expertise of scientists from different research fields is the best way to understand it and ultimately improve the way we treat it. In addition to the doctors operating the patients, the HERCULES project team includes, for example, molecular biologists who process patient samples and perform experiments in the lab; data scientists and bioinformaticians who analyse big data; and geneticists who help to interpret the results.

Group photo of HERCULES consortium members
HERCULES consortium members at a yearly meeting in 2018. The consortium includes 13 research groups representing various fields of science.

Here we picked the brains of four experts from different fields of science involved in the HERCULES project – Sakari Hietanen, Kaisa Huhtinen, Jing Tang and Jaana Oikkonen – to find out how they ended up researching ovarian cancer and what keeps them motivated.

First of all, why did you become…

Sakari: … a surgeon? Right from the beginning, cancer was my main interest. I chose gynecologic cancer as my specialty because it allows me to treat patients with medication but also perform surgeries. During surgery the time flies when you operate for eight hours: you worry about when the time goes out, not about when your day ends.

Kaisa: … a molecular biologist? I have always been interested in medicine, but more specifically in understanding diseases and revealing their secrets rather than treating patients. Molecular biology gave me the tools to investigate the most interesting aspects of cancers for me, the mechanisms driving it.

Jing: … a computational biologist? I have a background in Physics and Statistics, and both my Master’s and Doctoral theses were related to computational biology. The huge amount of data generated in biology and medicine created a lot of opportunities for data scientists to delve into these exciting fields, to help doctors and biologists to answer the many open questions still surrounding cancer.

Jaana: … a geneticist? Originally I studied biotechnology, but I soon noticed that I liked  the computational part of my studies more than lab work. I was also really fascinated by genetics, so I specialised in computational genetics. To me, genetics is about trying to understand relationships and complex systems within a cell. We know only bits and pieces of how a cell works and how its DNA determines (at least in part) its behavior, so there is still a lot to be learned in this field.

What is your motivation for doing research?

Sakari: In medicine, if you don’t follow the progress of both clinical and basic research, you fall behind and lose the grip. That’s my main motivation. Nowadays, patients are also very knowledgeable, and you need to be able to answer their questions. Of course you could just read clinical articles but, in my opinion, that is not enough, especially now that we are in an era of really interesting things happening in biomedical sciences.

Kaisa: I am keen to understand the mechanisms causing diseases or affecting their treatment, and how these mechanisms can be changed or used to better treat and diagnose patients. Working as a researcher is not an easy job but, during the hard days, I think about the patients suffering from the disease and I find the motivation to do my best for them and for future patients. Maybe this is my way to make the world a bit better.

Jing: I like to quote my favorite statistician, George Box, who said that ‘scientific research is a process of guided learning. The object of statistical methods is to make that process as efficient as possible.’ I feel a strong need to develop new tools that may help medical researchers to extract new knowledge from data.

Jaana: I want to know why and how things work. I have always liked to find connections and explanations that could help me better understand the world around us. Additionally, knowing that our research can directly help patients and make their life better is important.

What have you learned from other experts during the HERCULES project?

Sakari: Bringing together people from different fields and combining their knowledge and findings can lead to truly translational results. I see real potential in this approach. Having people from bioinformatics, genetics, molecular biology with more and more clinical involvement, and also international collaboration, is very interesting. I’ve learned a lot of things, from  the genetic aspect, of course, but also on how to do research in a translational sense and from the administrative point as well. How you keep hold of all the strings and things like that. Not to mention the fun parts, such as the friendships that have developed during the collaboration.

Kaisa: It has been wonderful to work in this international multidisciplinary consortium and I have learned a lot. Most of all, witnessing different ways of seeing and approaching a question or an issue has enriched my own thinking. It has also been interesting to follow the whole process of an EU-project.

Jing: HERCULES has provided an ideal environment for me to learn the complexity of cancer biology and drug discovery. My group has developed new computer tools to analyze genomic and drug screening data. The close collaboration with the biologists who generated this data has played a critical role to better understand how biological experiments are run and what are experimental uncertainties that should be taken into account when analyzing the data.

Jaana: I have learned a lot! When I started in HERCULES, I had worked on genomics but not on cancer. I talked about cancer with all the experts in HERCULES and learned what is special about ovarian cancer and how to apply my knowledge on this specific topic. The great advantage of having interdisciplinary collaboration is that there is always someone that can either answer your questions or help you search for an answer.