Developing a new vaccine in a summer job

Submitted on Thu, 08/04/2016 - 11:49
Aliisa Tiihonen
Aliisa Tiihonen, a student at BioMediTech, spent her summer researching a vaccine. Photo: Ida Vahtera


The new Arvo building on the Kauppi campus will be officially opened in the autumn, but removals to the new facilities are still ongoing. Amongst all the bustle, researchers are continuing their work in the laboratories, and one of them is Aliisa Tiihonen. Tiihonen has studied biomedical technology at the University of Tampere for a year and she got a summer job at BioMediTech (BMT) in a research group which develops a new vaccine for tuberculosis.

“Our group is investigating tuberculosis in fish. It is caused by Mycobacterium marinum, which is related to the bacterium causing the disease in humans. The zebra fish is suitable for modelling the disease because the immune defence of the fish is very similar to that of people. The same applies to both the innate and acquired immunity,” Tiihonen says.

“We are currently investigating genes that are expressed at the different stages of growth of the tuberculosis bacterium. I have cloned the genes of Mycobacterium marinum and transferred them to the Escherichia coli bacterium (E.coli). With the help of E-coli, we can reproduce more of the plasmid (small circular, double-stranded DNA molecules) contained by the gene we are cloning. The plasmid can be isolated from the bacterium and used to test the vaccine,” Tiihonen explains.

“The aim of our research is to develop a new vaccine for tuberculosis which would provide a better protection than the current vaccine. The new vaccine would also protect against the latent period of the disease. The latent period refers to the presence of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis in the body and how the bacterium can be infectious but not cause infection and how it can reactivate an infection in the body at a later point.”

“The new vaccine would prevent patients from developing tuberculosis even in cases where they have been infected by the bacterium,” Tiihonen says.

Getting work experience after just a year of studies

Even though Tiihonen plays a small part in the research project, she is inspired by being involved in something which might have real practical value in the future.

“It would be brilliant if our research group were able to develop a vaccine that actually works and the new vaccine were included in the national immunisation programme.”

Medical research interests Tiihonen also in the future. To begin with, she really wanted to apply to medical school but ended up studying at BMT. Now she would not switch to medicine for anything.

“Even when I was applying to get in the medical school, I found research and seeing how everything works the most interesting aspect. At BMT, I got my hands on research right from the start.”

A lot of theoretical studies are included in Tiihonen’s degree programme, but there are also laboratory courses where different working methods are taught. She says that research and teaching are closely linked at BMT. Many students are included in research groups and many of them end up working in them.

“It is great to work in a research group even though I have just studied for a year so far. This is a good opportunity to test how I would be doing in working life,” Tiihonen says.

“I have learned so many new things. At the start of the summer, I got to section specimens from the fish, which was completely new to me because I had not yet attended the histology course where the method is taught. I learned to do it in practical work.”

A summer job gives a direction to the studies

The best aspect of Tiihonen’s summer job has been to actually do things which she had only read about previously.

The work experience gained in the research group also motivates Tiihonen to study more and it gives a direction to the studies. Of the specialisms offered at the Master’s level, Tiihonen is the most interested in cell and tissue technology, and molecular biology.

“I have had excellent supervision and I have learned to think differently. I could well imagine doing similar research also in the future.”


Text: Ida Vahtera