The Minerva Foundation’s Medix Prize 2020 awarded to a research group from the University of Helsinki

STEM CELLS CAN BE REJUVENATED BY INHIBITING SIGNALS FROM NEIGHBOURING CELLS 

The Minerva Foundation’s Medix Prize, worth €20,000, has been awarded to a team researching the rejuvenation of the functioning of aged tissue by inhibiting signals between stem cells and their niche cells. The prize was awarded for an article published in the science journal Nature by a research group from the University of Helsinki. The research group is headed by Associate Professor and Director of the Academy of Finland’s Centre of Excellence in Stem Cell Metabolism Pekka Katajisto. 

The mechanism discovered by the research group may represent a safer way to treat gastrointestinal complications in elderly people, reduce the harmful side-effects of chemotherapeutic agents and support the recovery of older patients. 

According to the head researcher of the project, PhD student Nalle Pentinmikko, compromised tissue function in elderly people has been known for a good while. In addition, reduced function of stem cells is known to have a role in poor regeneration of old tissues.

“Research has so far focused on the intrinsic mechanisms in the functional decline of stem cell. Our research is amongst the first to examine the role of the neighbourhood, the niche, of ageing stem cells. To our surprise, we discovered that incorrect signals are sent from the niche to stem cells which deteriorates the functional capacity of stem cells and therefore negatively affects their ability to regenerate damaged gut tissue,” Head Researcher Pentinmikko says. 

Stem cells require Wnt molecules, which regulate their ability to proliferate. In old tissue, Paneth cells, surrounding the stem cells, produce an enzyme called Notum, which is an extracellular Wnt inhibitor. This results in the decreased regeneration capacity of stem cells which, in turn, negatively affects the recovery of damaged gut tissue. Whereas Notum was already known to researchers, its connection to stem cell biology has now been established for the first time.

The discovery of the mechanism allows for correcting miscommunication between cells by means of pharmacological inhibition or genetic targeting of Notum.

“At the end of the research, we found a pharmacological molecule that may create a basis for future medical treatment. The US-based research group that has developed the molecule had discovered its Notum inhibiting function, but they didn’t know when and where this kind of molecule could be used,” Head Researcher Pentinmikko says. 

According to Katajisto’s vision, there could in ten years’ time be treatments and medicines to rejuvenate the stem cells function of elderly patients in such a way that their ability to repair damaged tissue would be closer to that of young tissue. 

“This will be of great importance in cancer treatment, for example, where the most commonly used treatments often result in serious damage to healthy tissue, in particular in older individuals. Currently, the risks associated with such harmful side-effects can influence treatment decisions for elderly patients even in cases where the treatment could be beneficial” says Katajisto.

The newly discovered mechanism cannot be used for preventing or curing illnesses, but it can be used for facilitating recovery from certain conditions and the severe side-effects of treatments in the future. The research group has already launched research into the role of Notum in the onset of colorectal cancer. 

Caption: The research group used mice and human source materials. Director Pekka Katajisto (rear) observes Head Researcher Nalle Pentinmikko preparing a small intestine dissected from an aged mouse. Photographer: Martti Ahlstén.

The Medix Prize by the Minerva Foundation is an important annual award for internationally high-level Finnish medical research. The Medix Prize is, in a manner of speaking, the Finnish championship for biomedicine. This year the Medix Prize will be awarded for the 33rd time. 

The Medix Prize is awarded by the University of Helsinki, and is donated to the university by the Minerva Foundation, which funds the Minerva Foundation Institute for Medical Research at Biomedicum Helsinki. 

The prize is awarded annually for excellent Finnish scientific research published as one article during the previous year. The research is to be in the fields of biomedicine or clinical medicine and performed fully or in its essential parts in Finland. 

The awardee is selected by a committee consisting of representatives from the universities of Helsinki, Turku, Tampere, Eastern Finland and Oulu, who are appointed for three years. 

Article published in Nature (login or fee required. Please contact Director Pekka Katajisto if you do not have login data): 

Notum produced by Paneth cells attenuates regeneration of aged intestinal epithelium 
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1383-0  

Further information on the award-winning study: 

Head Researcher Nalle Pentinmikko, +358 (0)40 719 8254, nalle.pentinmikko(at)helsinki.fi 
Director Pekka Katajisto, +358 (0)40 708 5349. pekka.katajisto(at)elsinki.fi 
Research group website: katajisto-lab.com 

Further information on the Medix Prize and the Minerva Foundation: 

Professor Vesa Olkkonen, +358 (0)50 411 2297, vesa.olkkonen(at)helsinki.fi 
minervafoundation.fi 

This media release is distributed by PR Officer Martti Ahlstén 
Viestintätoimisto Verbi 
+358 (0)500 582 588 
martti.ahlsten(at)verbi.fi

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