The University of Tartu has conferred the degree of Honorary Doctor of Biomedicine on Professor Erkki Ruoslahti for his years of cooperation with the University of Tartu in developing the research fields of cancer biology, nanomedicine and drug development.
Erkki Ruoslahti was born on 16 February 1940 in Imatra, Finland. He received his MD from the University of Helsinki in 1965 and defended his PhD in immunology at the same institution two years later. From 1967 to 1976, Ruoslahti held various academic positions at the University of Helsinki and the University of Turku.
In 1976, Ruoslahti moved to California and worked at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte. In 1979, he joined the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation (now Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, or SBP). At SBP, besides being a principal investigator and professor (1979–2020), he served as research director (1979–1995) and CEO and president (1982–2001) of the institute. He has also been elected a distinguished professor at the University of California, San Diego (1980–2004) and the University of California, Santa Barbara (2003–2015).
Professor Ruoslahti is an internationally renowned biomedical scientist who has been at the forefront of science and drug development for decades. As a result of his work, a number of fundamental scientific discoveries have found their way into cell biology textbooks (e.g. identifying the molecular mechanisms of cell adhesion, and migration and developing the concept of vascular "zip codes"), followed by development work in translational medicine (antithrombotic drugs and clinical trials for the therapeutic application of tumour-homing peptides still ongoing in 2022).
In 1974, Ruoslahti discovered fibronectin, an adhesion molecule and component of extracellular matrices (ECMs), and showed that cells bind to it with a short amino acid sequence (peptide) that plays an important role in many species, from fruit flies to mammals. Research and development based on this discovery have led to the development of two antithrombotic drugs and a drug candidate that boosts the effectiveness of cancer drugs.
Ruoslahti has also discovered cell-surface ECM receptors (integrins) and defined the basic principles of cell-ECM interaction that are now widely accepted. From his recent research, the development of precision therapy methods for cancer deserves to be highlighted.
Erkki Ruoslahti's outstanding work in cell and cancer biology has been widely recognised. He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences since 1999 and has received several prestigious awards (e.g. Canada Gairdner International Award in 1997, Japan Prize in Cell Biology in 2005, and Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 2022).
In addition to being an eminent researcher, Professor Ruoslahti is also a top-class research administrator. Under his leadership, the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation with 100 employees in 1988 grew into the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute with nearly 1,000 employees in 2001. SBP belongs to the top 2% of most cited research centres in the world.
Ruoslahti has actively applied his research findings in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. He holds a number of patents, patent families and several research or licensing agreements with international pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. His inventions and development work have led to the creation of several biomedical companies.
Cooperation with the University of Tartu has had a special place in Ruoslahti's activities in recent years. The Laboratory of Precision and Nanomedicine of the Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine has collaborated for many years with Ruoslahti's research group, focusing on the precision-guiding of cancer drugs and nanoparticles. Collaboration with Ruoslahti has been instrumental in developing the fields of cancer biology, nanomedicine and drug development in Tartu and contributed to the establishment of the professorship of nanomedicine at the University of Tartu Faculty of Medicine in 2019.