Research sheds light on disease mechanisms
Proteins found in cell membranes may prove to be valuable allies in the fight against cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Professor Ilpo Vattulainen vows to put in his best efforts to meet the challenge.
"A number of diseases are caused by disturbances in protein-protein interactions in cell membranes. If we understand the underlying molecular mechanisms better, we may be able to find a way to restore normal cell functions", says Professor Ilpo Vattulainen.
Vattulainen heads the Biological Physics and Soft Matter Group that he established at TUT in 2001. The group comprises some 30 researchers, who apply computational research methods to biological problems relevant to human health. Fundamental research is conducted in close collaboration with international partners, such as experimental research groups focusing on cell biology, pharmacology and structural biology.
The group has made some very exciting discoveries in the past few years. Most importantly, they have unravelled the functions of membrane receptors and determined the structure of high density and low density lipoproteins that are also known as good and bad cholesterol.
"We’ve demonstrated that lipids are capable of governing receptor behaviour and modelled the behaviour of lipoproteins in people who have either extremely healthy or extremely unhealthy lifestyles."
Invisible becomes visible
The computational approach to biological physics involves the dissection and analysis of complex data sets and the development of computational techniques for modelling and simulating cell phenomena.
"We make the invisible visible. First, we construct an exact atomic-level model of the biological object under scrutiny and then use computer simulations to analyse phenomena that cannot be experimentally investigated in sufficient detail."
"We look at how molecules move inside cells, how they interact and bond with each other and how they affect protein functions," describes Ilpo Vattulainen.
As cells are surprisingly complex, simpler model organisms are often used in scientific experiments and computer simulations. One of the key objectives of the Biological Physics and Soft Matter Group is to develop computational models that imitate naturally occurring processes more closely.
"Computational and experimental investigations are combined to gain a better understanding of cell functions."
Substantial funding from ERC
Vattulainen’s Biological Physics and Soft Matter Group has succeeded in building an international reputation for excellence in a short period of time. The group achieved significant recognition in spring 2012, when the European Research Council (ERC) awarded Ilpo Vattulainen two million euros for a five-year project on cell membranes. ERC promotes high quality research in Europe by offering competitive grants to top researchers and projects.
"ERC’s support allows us to pursue high-risk fundamental research with the potential for breakthrough discoveries and great payoffs. We’ll devote all our scientific ambition to the project," promises Vattulainen.