The Sakari Alhopuro foundation donates €1 million to the University of Helsinki for basic research related to the novel coronavirus

The foundation has decided to donate €1 million to the research group headed by Professor of Virology Kalle Saksela. The funds enable the group to speed up academic basic research focused on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is also needed, for example, to develop vaccines against the rapidly mutating virus. Investments in coronavirus research lay the groundwork for enhancing competence relevant to viruses and opportunities to respond to potential future pandemics.

Professor Kalle Saksela has spent decades investigating viruses. That it was possible to rapidly initiate research pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic at several Finnish universities was due to the Finnish scientific community having strong expertise in basic virology. The research is aimed at increasing understanding of the virus and its spread, as well as developing therapies, drugs and vaccines.

A particular focus of Kalle Saksela’s research group is responding to the pandemic with a vaccine that is inexpensive, adaptable against different variants of the virus and easy to administer, as well as one that would provide people with not only protection against the Covid-19 disease but also prevent those who have been vaccinated from transmitting the virus to others.

The expertise accumulated through vaccine development will also increase the researchers’ capacity for understanding viruses similar to the novel coronavirus in the future.

The research project is founded on basic research in virology, cancer biology and gene transfer techniques conducted for a long time at the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland. Now, these efforts can be effectively harnessed for the development of a vaccine based on a viral vector,” says Kalle Saksela. 

“Manifested in this research are the central role and value of basic research, that is, the long-term accumulation of scientific expertise which makes it possible to tackle surprising and unforeseen scientific and societal challenges,” Saksela adds.

Donations can give a boost to ongoing efforts

The Sakari Alhopuro Foundation supports research associated with medicine, the environment and the economy, all of which are inextricably linked to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The foundation believes Finnish vaccine research is extremely important for taming the pandemic. A long-term goal is to ensure the continuity of research conducted in Finland. Preparing for future pandemics requires high-level expertise in the field, which we wish to promote with our donation,” says Sakari Alhopuro, the foundation’s founder, in a press release by the foundation (in Finnish only).

“On behalf of the University of Helsinki, I thank the Sakari Alhopuro Foundation for their significant donation. Donations also have a key role in supporting basic research, especially at a time such as this,” says Dean Risto Renkonen of the Faculty of Medicine.

The foundation’s donation gives a boost to the research conducted by Saksela’s group. For the time being, basic research pertaining to vaccine development has been carried out by a single full-time researcher at Saksela’s laboratory hosted by the University of Helsinki with funding granted by the Academy of Finland.

The donation enables Saksela to recruit a team of vaccine researchers to be based at Meilahti.

“The goal is for the team to produce, through basic research, solid data that can be used, for example, in support of vaccine development also in the future. At the same time, the donation accelerates studies related to the potential vaccine currently being investigated so that the development process can proceed to clinical trials in the summer of 2021. Additionally, the donation can be used to further investigate the vaccine antibody versions already identified, which we have not been able to study so far. Another central goal is to expand the project so that we will be better able to prepare for variants of SARS-CoV-2,” Saksela states.