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News 16.02.2018

Unique FinnGen study to impact global health via genomic research

Launched in December 2017, FinnGen is an unprecedented genomic research project with global goals, based on cooperation between Finnish institutions and seven international pharmaceutical companies. Combining genome information with digital healthcare data – and with a plan to tap into 500,000 unique blood samples collected by Finnish biobanks – FinnGen hopes to identify new therapeutic targets and diagnostics for treating numerous diseases.

"Future health innovations can primarily be found by looking at large masses. The FinnGen study has the potential to benefit global healthcare systems long into the future. We hope that this study will stimulate researchers and businesses from around the world to join the journey into personalised healthcare," says FinnGen's Scientific Director Aarno Palotie, from the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) at the University of Helsinki.

According to FinnGen, the data created during the study can be used for prioritising drug targets based on genomic information, enabling more efficient drug development pipelines and better individualized drug treatment choices. The study will also boost the activities of Finnish biobanks by speeding up sample collection and enabling enrichment of samples with genomic data.

Collaborative public-private approach

FinnGen brings together Finnish universities, hospitals and hospital districts, the National Institute for Health and Welfare, Blood Service, biobanks and major pharmaceutical companies. The six-year project has a budget of EUR 59 million and is coordinated by the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki University Central Hospital.

Business Finland is providing EUR 20 million of the funding and the rest comes from the pharmaceutical companies AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Biogen, Celgene, Genentech (member of the Roche Group), Merck & Co and Pfizer.

FinnGen views collaboration as the key to speeding up innovation and achieving breakthroughs in disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Its public-private collaboration model is exceptional compared to many other ongoing studies.

Tapping into Finland's unique gene pool

The goal of half a million blood samples, covering almost 10% of Finland's population, makes FinnGen one of the most extensive studies of its kind, and unprecedented in terms of its national representativeness.

Finland – A frontrunner in delivering value-for-money health care

"Finland is also one of the few places in the world where the health services can access population registers covering people's whole lives. Another factor that makes the study unique is Finland's genetic heritage which is characterised by a small, isolated initial population that has experienced rapid growth over the past few hundred years, during which rare genetic variants have increased in particular," Palotie explains.

According to FinnGen, this means that Finland's genomic data can be analysed faster and more effectively than in populations of more heterogeneous origins, significantly improving the chances of breakthrough findings for disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Transparency and trust

FinnGen is committed to managing the project's anonymous health registry and genomic data without compromising the privacy and integrity of participants. Palotie is confident that half a million Finns are willing to offer their blood samples and help FinnGen to build a foundation for health innovations and personalised treatments.

"Finnish people have strong trust in the country's research and healthcare system, and we are constantly receiving new inquiries from people who would like to participate in the project. Transparency is crucial to maintaining the trust of the citizens in the research."

FinnGen is boosting the operations Finland's regional network of biobanks, while the Finnish government has actively sought to keep legislation at pace with the needs of genomic research.

"There has been a lot of good work in Finland concerning the regulatory environment for biobanks, the national genome centre as well as the secondary usage of health and social care data," says Palotie.

Finland is a hotspot for medical research

Finland is one of the world's hotspots for medical research, consistently ranked among the world's leading countries for healthcare, education, innovation, digitalisation and good governance. Many international companies have established R&D operations in Finland, and health-related innovations by Finnish companies are attracting global interest.

"Finland is seen as a reliable research partner with a well-functioning infrastructure," says Palotie, who also works at the Center for Human Genome Research at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

According Nora Kaarela, Industry Head, Health & Wellbeing, Business Finland, the FinnGen project will further strengthen Finland's leadership role in developing more effective treatments for the benefit of patients and global healthcare systems.

"Decades of investments in medical research and the development of our healthcare system has made Finland a frontrunner in delivering value-for-money health care. In January 2018, a study published in Lancet reported Finland to be among the 8 countries in the world with the highest cancer survival rate," says Kaarela.

"The Finngen project, our highly rated clinical expertise and innovation-friendly legislation position Finland as a global healthcare hub for medical research and innovation. We welcome companies and investors to tap into this emerging opportunity for delivering very personalised health care."

For more information

Nora Kaarela
Head of Industry, Health & Wellbeing
M: +358 (0)400 897 020