Senior Researcher Ritva Heljasvaara received her PhD in 1996 in molecular biology at the University of Oulu, Finland. In 1998 she joined one of the world’s leading extracellular matrix (ECM) and collagen research groups led by Professor Taina Pihlajaniemi at the University of Oulu, and is currently the co-director of the group.
The group formed part of the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Cell-ECM Research of Academy of Finland in 2012-2017, and is now actively participating in efforts to promote the University’s research profile in the ECM and fibrosis fields with a specific funding from the Academy for 2017-2021.
Dr. Heljasvaara is recognized for her expertise in ECM and tumor biology and for her work on experimental mouse tumor models. Her current research focuses on understanding the functions and translational potential of the ECM components in skin, breast, lung and hematologic malignancies. In 2018 she and her team were awarded the ‘Oriontation 100 ideas’ prize of the Finnish pharmaceutical company Orion on novel concepts for using ECM as a therapeutic target in solid cancers.
In collaboration with Professor Donald Gullberg, Dr. Heljasvaara is investigating the role of the fibroblast-specific integrin α11 in skin squamous cell carcinoma using the chemical DMBA/TPA-induced mouse skin carcinogenesis model. The key findings indicate that α11 is upregulated in skin tumor stroma and it has a supportive role in skin tumorigenesis with effects on carcinoma-associated fibroblast (CAF) differentiation, ECM organization and tumor stiffness. In addition to research, Dr. Heljasvaara has contributed to teaching at the Department of Biomedicine in 2018.