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.
Together with five other teams at the University of Oulu, their research group forms the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Cell-Extracellular Matrix Research of Academy of Finland for 2012-2017. 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 of the ECM components in skin, breast and hematologic malignancies.
In collaboration with Professor Donald Gullberg, Dr. Heljasvaara has investigated the role of the fibroblast-specific integrin α11 in skin squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), by subjecting the Itga11 knockout mice to the chemical DMBA/TPA-induced 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.
Besides scientific research, Dr. Heljasvaara has contributed in teaching at the Matrix Biology PhD course in June 2017, organized by CCBIO and the Bergen Biomedical Research School. In future collaboration with Professors Gullberg and Reed, the aim is to further clarify how α11 regulates fibroblast phenotype, collagen biosynthesis and tumor stiffness.