UPM´s Biomedicals department spearheads UPM’s involvement in the field of medicine. Some three years ago, an interdisciplinary project between UPM and the University of Helsinki launched GrowDex®, a cellulose-based hydrogel. It is a fairly new product but it has already been granted an award for innovation in the chemical industry two years ago. GrowDex is the first medical product launched by UPM’s Biomedicals department. Today, it is used by researchers around the world. But what is it used for?
Cancer research in a joint project
The Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) uses GrowDex as a cell culture matrix in cancer research. A joint project by UPM and FIMM combines bioeconomy and personalised medicine.
“We are conducting cancer research. We receive cancer cell specimens from a neighbouring clinic and we culture these cancer cells under different conditions such as in GrowDex gel, for medicine testing, among other uses. We are also interested in the mutation of cancer cells”, explains Vilja Pietiäinen, who works as a senior researcher at FIMM.
In recent years, personalised medicine has become a much-discussed topic, as it aims to advance health and treat diseases at the individual patient level. The researchers at FIMM are also trying to understand how cancer begins, what is the precise point of origin of a patient’s cancer, and how the cancer cells in this patient react to different medicines. “Each cancer is different and so is each patient”, explains Pietiäinen.
“That is why personalised medicine is becoming so big around the world”, adds Lauri Paasonen, UPM’s product expert and researcher, who is collaborating with Pietiäinen at the Biomedicum centre in Meilahti, Helsinki.
Pia Nilsson, responsible for Biomedicals products (left), senior researcher Vilja Pietiäinen from FIMM and product expert Lauri Paasonen from UPM work closely together in cancer research.
Cancer cells grow well in GrowDex gel
The joint cancer research project between UPM and FIMM began when UPM established a new innovation department in the Biomedicum research and education centre in 2016. FIMM had been working in these facilities even before then.
“Our researchers were familiar with GrowDex and we had been keen to follow its development from early on. When our own projects had evolved to a certain stage in which cell culture in three-dimensional models was becoming extremely interesting, it was the right time to begin this collaboration”, says Vilja Pietiäinen.
The research is still in the early stages, but some discoveries have already been made. For example, individual cancer cells isolated from patients are able to grow in the gel and form three-dimensional spheroid structures, i.e. nodular clusters.
The next step for the research team is to find out how well the cells cultured in GrowDex gel represent the original cancer tumour. Finally, tests are performed to find out which medicine kills the cancer cells.
Vilja Pietiäinen notes that UPM’s Biomedicals team was ahead of its time: both personalised medicine and 3D cell culture have now become extremely relevant.
“Major pharmaceutical companies are currently very interested in 3D medicine testing. Clearly, they have been waiting for someone to perform academic research in the field and develop new methods. UPM entered the field with perfect timing as interest is clearly increasing”, says Pietiäinen.
- GrowDex is the first medical product to be launched by UPM's Biomedicals department.
- The consistency of the cellulose-based hydrogel is similar to the conditions in a human body. That is why the gel can be used as a cell culture matrix.
- GrowDex is unique in being 100 per cent plant origin. Researchers value the product’s consistency as well as its plant origin, which ensures even better results in an ethically sustainable way.