Springtime sniffles caused by birch pollen might become a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future. VTT has been developing a vaccine against the annoying condition of birch allergy. Although there is still a way to go before it reaches the market, Kristiina Takkinen, who has worked on the vaccine from the very beginning, looks back at the unique journey from basic research to a promising innovation which has also given rise to a spinoff company.
“It has been exciting to see the vast development of the technology – many things that used to take several weeks now happen in just a few seconds”, says an enthusiastic Kristiina Takkinen, who could be called a pioneer in her field. Takkinen is a biochemist, who started work at VTT already in 1988, as methods were being launched aimed at modifying the structures of antibodies.
It all began with structural studies of allergens. Although it is spoken of as if it were a recent innovation, the origins lie in research going back to small projects that began 23 years ago. In the projects, cooperation between the University of Eastern Finland and the HUS Skin and Allergy Hospital led to two important observations about the general structural features of allergens.
A realization of allergens’ features led to a company
On the practical level allergens are e.g. proteins that the body reacts to. When the body of an allergic person reacts to an allergen, the antibody levels (IgE antibody) in the body rise. Structural analysis showed how powerfully an antibody links up with an allergen. Although this might sound rather complicated to a many, it is a simple, but unique structural outcome that led to the development of an allergy vaccine.
“Allergy is a very interesting condition in that only part of the population are allergic, even though we all get exposed to these allergens. What turns a protein into an allergen that causes a reaction, considering that only a fraction of all proteins are allergens? We noticed that allergens share common structural characteristics that separate them from other proteins”, says Takkinen and continues:
Finding the structure nevertheless requires solid professional skill, and determining protein structure is no trivial matter even today, but plenty of coincidence and good luck were also involved."
Allergies impose costs on society that are surprisingly high, not to mention the discomfort suffered by individuals. The ideas naturally had to be protected by patents, to make sure that this insight does not run away. This is certainly not the only allergy vaccine under development, but it’s path of development is incomparable.
This led to the establishment of Desentum, a spinoff company that will also have an important role in commercialising the vaccine in the future. VTT does not market inventions on its own. A key role in this is played by spinoff companies that continue the journey to the market.
Why then has no allergy vaccine been developed as early as other vaccines have?
Allergy vaccines actually do sort of exist, since current allergy desensitization treatments are given through injections or pills. However, desensitization treatments take a long time and they are based on natural extracts of varying composition, causing variability in the efficacy of treatments.
Desentum's idea is to modify the structure of the allergen very precisely. This way it is possible to reduce the harmful features of the allergen but at the same preserve its capability to elicit a good protective response leading to efficient and safe desensitization treatments. Further, biotechnology enables the production of modified allergens in a uniform manner, which guarantees accurate dosing of the amount of allergen used in the treatment. The result is hopefully a shorter and more gentle allergy treatment.
What about the future of the vaccine?
Perhaps surprisingly, a stumbling block in the project proved to be excessive optimism in the early stages, leading to research that was done on an overly broad allergen palette considering the available resources. As a result of focusing, a decision was made to concentrate on birch allergy, and last year Desentum completed its first clinical trial with promising results. Next, the vaccine will be tested on a larger group of people, and the dosage will be optimized to improve the treatment. In addition, the future work with other allergens should be halfway completed, and development of vaccines for grass and peanut allergies are next in Desentum’s product pipeline.
According to Takkinen, the key to success has been great teamwork and skilful colleagues who made the research a pleasure to do. It is nice that the development is happening out of love for the field, as almost none of the members of the research group are allergic themselves – Takkinen included.
As for the future, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, for example, might prove revolutionary in the efficiency of pharmaceutical development by making it possible to process more data, with greater efficiency than before. It is nevertheless clear that the development of technologies has taken off and is not expected to slow down in the future.
It certainly feels good to see one's own work moving forward. On the other hand, all of this is the result of travelling such a long road that as a researcher I always enthusiastically look forward to the next phase to see how it works out."
Did you know?
VTT has its own funding instruments to support research, which have helped move this vaccine research ahead. Previously, the research was advanced through VTT's Frontier funding, which has now been replaced by iBEX funding.
Funding is a significant part of helping research, alongside commercialisation, making it possible to advance some very wild ideas, which could result in some great inventions.