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Story | 02/16/2021 11:54:29

The future of medicine is about to get personal

Piia Mikkonen is a Product Development Scientist at UPM Biomedicals. She started her career in academia at the University of Turku and admits: “I never dreamt I would end up working for a forest company! I worked in a project with GrowDex and couldn’t quite believe at first that you could use birch trees in cell culture. I was impressed with how innovative the product was and now I’m working for UPM.”

GrowDex is a ready-to-use hydrogel that supports cell growth with consistent results. Made using nanocellulose found in birch trees, the product is also sustainable, sterile and environmentally friendly. It can be used across a range of biomedical research and is completely animal-free. In fact, GrowDex is being used to reduce the need for animal testing in biomedical applications. Furthermore, it is being applied to the expanding and innovative concept of personalised medicine.

A sample of cells extracted from a patient are embedded in GrowDex. GrowDex replicates the pressure the cells would experience in the human body, ensuring they are not damaged or compromised. Because GrowDex is essentially made up of just cellulose and water, it does not interfere with the cells’ make up.

Personalised medicine refers to the process of approaching a patient’s treatment from a personal perspective. Specifically, it uses an individual’s molecular and genetic profile to help determine the best medical treatment procedure. For example, if a patient has been diagnosed with cancer, rather than receiving the prescribed broad spectrum treatment for that cancer, a sample of their cancer can be extracted from the patient and used to screen a range of other compounds that may be more effective or result in fewer side effects. This allows for an individual, personalised treatment plan.

GrowDex is helping to change the way we treat cancer and other illnesses – and it is made exclusively from trees.

UPM’s GrowDex hydrogel helps with this process by creating an environment similar to the humanbody for the cells. Examining samples in 3D rather than conventional 2D allows researchers to recreatethe way they grow in the body rather than on a flat, two-dimensional surface. “GrowDex is inert,meaning there is nothing extra in it that would disturb the analysis of the cells – it is essentially nanocelluloseand water. The hydrogel surrounds the cell and replicates the three-dimensional cellularenvironment found in the human body,” Mikkonen says.

GrowDex keeps the cells suspended in their natural formation, meaning researchers can examine them in a 3D state as opposed to on 2D surface. This allows experts to experiment with different drug treatments, offering the patient the best chance of recovery. The cells, now surrounded and held in place by GrowDex, are transferred to an incubator (in the cover photo), giving Piia Mikkonen and her research team the necessary tools to examine the samples and determine the best treatment plan.

This is only the beginning for this treatment approach, which is being spearheaded by Finnish research. “At the moment, personalised medicine studies using GrowDex are focused on a specific range of diseases, but there is no reason why they cannot be advanced to include other aspects of medicine in the medium-term. I firmly believe that this is the future of medical treatment; however, the only question now is over who will pay for its universal rollout,” says Mikkonen.

TextCraig Houston
Photography Katariina Salmi