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NK cell research

NK cell research project has been initiated to support the establishment of a novel immune cell therapy for Finnish cancer patients.

Research samples.

Our rationale in the NK cell research project is to combine the existing expertise in HLA and KIR (killer cell immunoglobulin like receptor) genetics, crucial for NK cell function, with the know-how in cell biology and therapy. 

Interestingly, HSCT from donors having certain activating KIR genes (i.e. so called high KIR B-score) has been associated with a better patient outcome in AML (Cooley et al, Blood. 2010;116), which was replicated in a Finnish cohort by our group (Impola et al, Front Immunol. 2014;5). However, this phenomenon has not been extensively studied in vitro.

Our aim is to study how the genetic background of the donor, especially their KIR genotype, affects the NK cell subtypes and functional properties. Ultimately, we aim at understanding if KIR genetics should be taken into more careful consideration in donor selection, potentially improving the outcome of NK cell therapy or cell therapy in general.


Docent Erja Kerkelä, PhD

Erja received her MSc in biochemistry from the University of Oulu (1997) and PhD from the University of Helsinki, Faculty of Medicine (2002). In 2013, she became docent in cell biology (University of Helsinki). After PhD studies in Prof. Ulpu Saarialho-Kere’s group she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the group of Prof. Juha Kere (Karolinska Institutet) studying genetics of pre-eclampsia and gene expression of human oocytes (2002– 2005).

During 2005 – 2010 she was a senior researcher in the group of Prof. Katriina Aalto-Setälä (University of Tampere) studying cardiomyocytes derived from human pluripotent stem cells. In 2010, she started as a senior scientist in FRCBS R&D department and at the end of 2019 moved to Advanced Cell Therapy Centre of FRCBS to work as Development manager (and person responsible for QC). During her years in FRCBS she has carried out various projects related to stem cells, immune and blood cells and cell therapy. Currently she is the PI in NK cell project aiming at understanding the connection between genetic variation and function of NK cells. She is also responsible for setting up an experimental NK cell therapy for Finnish cancer patients together with the clinicians.

Leena Penna, MSc 

Leena is a molecular bioscientist from the University of Helsinki where she focused on immunobiochemistry and molecular neuroscience. In her PhD, Leena combines cell biology and immunogenetics to study primary natural killer cells and their properties in vitro in the context of hematological malignancies

Farhana Jahan, PhD 

Farhana has a PhD focused on Biochemistry and Immunology from the University of Helsinki. She is interested in tumor immunology and the development of immunotherapeutics for hematological and solid tumor malignancies.

Currently she is involved in the development of CARs (Chimeric Antigen Receptor) for T-cells targeting hematological and solid malignancies specifically and efficiently. She also aims at understanding the mechanisms of CAR T-cell intracellular signaling and how to improve CAR T-cell trafficking and targeting against solid tumors.  Farhana is also working on the development of NK cells as a therapeutic product for the hematological malignancies and neuroblastoma.

Emmi Tiilikainen, MSc

Emmi is a biomedical engineer with a background in stem cell and lymphatics research. She did her engineering thesis on 3D cultured intestinal stem cells and master’s thesis on the endothelial cell arrangement of lymphatic networks. In iCell, she works as a research technician in the NK and CAR-NK projects.

Satu Koskela, PhD

Satu has a long working experience in the Blood Service. She did her doctoral thesis on the platelet molecular genetics, and later she worked in the clinical laboratory focusing on the HLA and KIR genetics. Today she works as a senior scientist in the department of research and development. Her long experience on immunogenetics has enabled to establish a novel research project in which the cell biological expertise is combined with HLA and KIR knowledge, the NK-cell research project.