How did you get interested in Medicinal Chemistry?
It happened relatively late, during my first year of bachelor’s studies. I did not plan to continue with chemistry at the university, I never enjoyed that much of organic chemistry in high school, even though it was easy subject to me. I only applied to study chemistry at the University of Jyväskylä, since it was an easy way for me to start my university studies. Then something strange happened during the first year, and I decided to put all my effort into medicinal chemistry (only 10 students per year were selected to have Med.Chem. as the main subject). At that time, I already find it really fascinating, I just didn’t knew it exists before my bachelor’s. I guess I’m a classical example, that you may not know at the age of 18 what you really want to do in your life, and it may still turn out to be ok in the end.
What was the topic of your PhD project?
Design, synthesis, and evaluation of prodrugs for improved and targeted drug delivery. My main project was to improve the oral bioavailability of anti-diabetic agent, metformin via increased permeation, but in my secondary project, I also developed cytochrome P450-bioactivated liver-targeted prodrugs.
Where did you have your postdoc position?
Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, University of Auckland, New Zealand in Distinguished Professor, Sir William (Bill) A. Denny’s research group, during 2009-2011. I developed novel inhibitors of perforin, a pore-forming cytolytic protein that is associated with several autoimmune diseases.
Where are you currently working and what is your current position?
At the School of Pharmacy at the University of Eastern Finland. Currently, I’m an Associate Professor and I lead the research group called ”Transporter-mediated Targeted Drug Delivery” team (Huttunen lab).
What are your current research interests?
Brain-drug delivery across the blood-brain barrier but also intrabrain distribution of drugs via membrane transporters. But I’m always interested in any kind of targeted drug delivery application to any part of the body.
How would you explain what your research area is to non-scientists?
Drugs are only effective if they are delivered to the right place. They also can be very toxic if they are delivered to the wrong place. To improve the effectiveness and safety of your medicines, I’m developing compounds that can utilize specific membrane transporters (proteins that also deliver sugar to your brain cells) to improve the distribution and exposure of drugs at the target site within the body.
What kind of tasks does your work involve?
These days, mainly writing and reading. Writing grant applications, manuscripts, reports, etc. and reading scientific papers, theses, and other student writings. However, despite all the digitalization, the most valuable tools for me still are the pen and paper, I’ll prefer to design my compounds and write original ideas in my notebook. Of course, supervising and leading a research group involves a lot of different everyday tasks, like being present/available for the group members.
What kind of skills does your work require?
Of course pharmaceutical or medicinal chemistry background is a requirement to understand the basics, however, I’m one of those persons who believes that the right attitude, motivation to learn and readiness to step out of your comfort zone (not fearing the failures) are the keys in your personal success. The needed skills can be learned and improved along with your career. In addition, soft skills, like good communication skills are highly appreciated in any multidisciplinary and multinational research group these days.
How many PhD students and postdocs do you currently supervise?
I have 4 soon finalizing Ph.D. students, 3 recently started Ph.D. students and I also co-supervise 3 Ph.D. students with other group leaders. I also supervise 1 postdoc/senior scientist and 2 technicians and have a handful of ERASMUS and M.Sc. students every year.
Are you currently looking for a new PhD student or a postdoc?
I just recruited a couple of new Ph.D. students, so currently not, but I’m always open to work with Ph.D. students and postdocs who are willing to apply their own funding, e.g., Marie Sklodowska-Curie position.
How would you describe yourself as a supervisor?
Hmmm… easy-going, open-minded, fair but strict, supportive. As I was planning to become a figure skating coach as a teenager, I think I still got it in my veins and my supervision style is quite coaching. I’ll throw the student into the deep end of the pool and then teach them to swim. I always said to my students that I’m learning together with them!
What do you consider your greatest achievement in your scientific career?
I’m really proud of my current team and the creative atmosphere that we have that supports novel innovations and the growth of young scientists. I think I have come a long and curly way to get to this point and learn a lot about how to lead a research team successfully.
Which of your papers are you most proud of and why?
I probably would say my third J.Med.Chem. paper of L-type amino acid transporter 1 (LAT1) inhibitor as an anti-cancer agent, which was one of my first papers, for which I received funding after my Ph.D., supervised the students who gave their input, and finally I put the results together and wrote the paper. My postdoc Professor Bill Denny said that I should be the first and last author in that one! I almost burst into tears, since it was so true.
What are the features of a successful PhD student or postdoc?
As mentioned above, I highly value the curiousness and motivated attitude over the specific skills. In addition, the soft skills that enable you to work successfully in the research group and scientific community are very valuable.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to know more about your field?
Well, that depends on the background, how much you understand in the first place and what are your possibilities to dig deeper. Attending conferences or having a mentor could be steps for young scientists, but for non-scientists, it is a bit more challenging question…
What would you like to ask from other medicinal chemists?
These days, everyone seems to be overwhelmed with deadlines and unfinished tasks, how do you manage your time and make sure that your brain can also rest and recover?
Have you experienced any unfair situations during your scientific career? How would you advise scientists facing similar situations?
Yes, many times. The academic world can be cruel and people can be greedy. My advice would be that pick up your fights wisely. There is no point to waste time and energy on something that cannot be changed anyway. But make sure that it won’t happen again. Therefore, I try to avoid psychologically toxic environments and people.
What is the most embarrassing thing you have done in the lab while doing experiments, e.g. explosions?
As a summer intern during my bachelor’s, my supervisor asked me to make anhydrous DMF by using molecular sieves (overnight). I asked her shall I also stir the mixture, and she said yes. In the next morning, I had a nice porridge in my erlenmeyer, since the sieves were completely destroyed due to the stirring. I was just amazed that my supervisor didn’t know this beforehand either.
What are your recommendations for a book, podcast, website, blog, YouTube channel or film?
I’m a bit boring person here, but I would recommend everybody to get distant from their work during their free time. Therefore, I prefer to listen to music, go to nature, play with the kids, etc. and give my brains something refreshing!
Which scientist do you admire the most and why?
Each and every powerful woman in history, like Rosalind Franklin, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, and a Finnish geneticist Leena Palotie-Peltonen. But of course, I respect all the scientists, regardless of gender, who have the passion to increase our knowledge resulting in better healthcare, respect of natural resousources and piece in the world.
Which field of medicinal chemistry do you consider the most promising for the future?
Well, many diseases, and particularly brain diseases, are very complex, with several different mechanisms contributing at the same time. Therefore, I believe that drugs that can affect multiple targets at the same time are highly needed. However, no drug is effective, unless it is delivered to the target site, so in that respect, I believe that achievements in drug delivery applications can be results in real breakthroughs.
What would you expect to be the next major breakthrough in medicinal chemistry?
I would like to believe that we can still go greener in our chemistry and digitalization is a key step in saving our resources. However, to be successful, we still need even more multidisciplinary understanding over different research fields and the ability to communicate at such a level, in which all the actors from different fields can give their greatest contribution to the next real breakthrough for humankind.