Professor Minna Nyström studies Lynch syndrome out of love for methods and genetics, with a dream to develop a test that benefits the world
Minna Nyström is the chairman of the board of LS CancerDiag, and until late 2022, she also performed the duties of company CEO. Minna is the leading inventor of the method launched by the company. As a professor at the University of Helsinki, she forms a strong link between the company and the academic world. Developing and bringing a test that identifies Lynch syndrome into clinical use has been Minna’s dream for a long time. Based on the company’s recent successful financing round and growth strategy, Minna is convinced that her dream will come true.
I have always wanted to develop something that benefits the world. I am a curious scientist by nature, a bit like Gyro Gearloose, who is ready to take significant risks to invent something new. As a bioscientist and company pilot, I have had the opportunity to participate in developing and experimenting with innovations. It has been tremendous and has given me the strength to build two careers simultaneously, even though it has materialized as many long and hard days.
In her day job, Minna is a professor of genetics and epigenetics at the University of Helsinki. Genetics was Minna’s first love in the scientific world. When she was young, she thought her educational path would lead straight to the faculty of medicine. But instead, she surprisingly found out that the field of genetics was part of the mathematics and natural sciences faculty. So, she first graduated as a biologist and later continued her studies by finalizing her Ph.D. in the faculty of medicine.
Right from the beginning of my biology studies, I noticed that I was highly interested in developing new methods. My academic study path has always been very determined – I immediately started working in the chromosome laboratory of the department of medical genetics at the beginning of my studies. After completing my master’s degree, at the age of 24, I read in Nature magazine how a new “in situ hybridization” had been developed at the US National Institute of Health under the leadership of Professor Mary Harper; I called her and asked to join the research group. This was the first significant method I brought to Finland and used, among other things, in an international collaboration project where we discovered the sex-determining factor from the Y chromosome. The method quickly became a routinely used method in genetics laboratories worldwide. These were inspiring times for a young researcher.
Minna’s world conquest was put on hold because she started a family and worked in a family business for several years. Years later, the inner fire to be a researcher prompted her to return to the research group of the then-head of the department of medical genetics, Professor Albert de la Chapelle, the Finnish pioneer of human genetics. Hereditary colon cancer was the new research subject and became Minna’s doctoral thesis topic. Minna was part of the group that discovered the first gene predisposing to Lynch syndrome and mapped the mutations and the families that inherited the disease.
Professors de la Chapelle and Päivi Peltomäki were important pillars of support and collaborators as my doctoral thesis supervisors and years after. We continue to collaborate with Päivi on various research projects. Already during my dissertation, I created a research plan to apply to a laboratory after completing my Ph.D., where I could develop a functional method to verify the pathogenicity of the mutations found. At that time, mutations found in MMR susceptibility genes, regardless of where or what they were, were generally interpreted as causing Lynch syndrome. I didn’t feel this was right; I was sure I could develop a method to give the correct information without causing unnecessary uncertainty. This is how the first functional so-called in vitro MMR test to detect the deficiency of the inherited repair mechanism, as part of my postdoc research at the University of Zürich in collaboration with the famous research group of Professor Josef Jiricny.
Minna was allowed to take her method invention with her when she returned to Finland. She founded her research group and continued her research at the University of Helsinki with the in vitro MMR test, which was used worldwide to verify the pathogenicity of the mutations found. During the following years, the group completed several dissertations and tens of publications at a fast pace, receiving a lot of positive feedback in the academic world. However, leading the research group was not Minna’s only job, as her main job was as the research and product development director of Medix Laboratories, Finland’s largest private central laboratory at the time, responsible for the development of methods in the departments of chemistry, pathology, immunology, virology, and genetics.
During my time at Medix, I was involved in several essential method developments. At the turn of the millennium, we developed, e.g., the world’s first DNA-based lactose intolerance test. The test was a significant breakthrough and innovation for detecting very common food hypersensitivity without food exposure. Although academic research has always been central to my career, most of the methods I have been involved in developing at that time have been developed from a commercial perspective.
LS CancerDiag’s functional DiagMMR test has been the highlight of Minna’s academic and business career. The test’s development has resulted from decades of work, which has required thorough research and innovation as a follow-up to the in vitro MMR test, but also good luck.
One of the biggest challenges in developing DiagMMR was finding the right sample type. After years of testing, it was clear that the blood sample did not give a reliable result. I set out to try skin samples received for another research project on this technology, and that was it: the skin sample worked immediately as it should. The perfectly working sample type was found pretty much by chance. I come from a family of entrepreneurs – I was born with an entrepreneurial spirit, and I am sometimes even too brave to try new things and take risks. Fortunately, this creative madness paid off in the development of DiagMMR.
Now, after tens of workaholic years, Minna is preparing to calm down her working pace and gradually transfer the company’s responsibilities and tasks to younger experts. A new phase is beginning, and new targets have been set to execute LS CancerDiag’s growth strategy, and the world’s best experts are being sought to manage the execution. However, Minna still sees herself as a significant background force in implementing the growth strategy.
I have had grandchildren in recent years, and naturally, I also see the role of grandmother rising on my priority list. I will remain involved and help in DiagMMR’s innovation and new challenges. My dream has been to develop a functional method by which anyone can be tested for hereditary Lynch syndrome and the associated lifetime high cancer risk. And with the help of the test, those who inherit Lynch syndrome can be guided to preventive monitoring, and those who did not can be freed from false suspicions and uncertainty. This dream is getting close to coming true.