PhD Stories With Timo-Pekka Lehto

Can you introduce yourself and share your PhD research topic?

My name is Timo-Pekka Lehto. I graduated as a medical doctor in January of 2022. I started my PhD studies in the turn of 2018 and 2019.

The PhD project is about molecular biomarkers in prostate cancer; specifically, messenger-RNA biomarkers for improved risk stratification of surgically treated intermediate- to high grade prostate cancer.

What motivated you to choose this program for your doctoral studies?

When I started working on my PhD, I was in the third year of medical school. I had contacted Tuomas Mirtti, one of the principal investigators in HUCC, six months before, to start working on my licenthiate thesis. I really liked working in the research group, and wanted to expand the project to a PhD.

What is a typical work day like for you?

The typical day in my PhD studies varies. For the first 3.5 years, I was working on my PhD part time, mostly in the evenings after school or clinical work. For the past six months, I have been working full time in HUCC, and have had more time for my PhD as well.

A day in my PhD studies can consist of meetings with other researchers to discuss study design and progress, data gathering from patient registries or more recently the HUS datalake, programming R for statistical analyses, interpreting results and writing manuscripts.

Timo-Pekka Lehto (left) and Tuomas Mirtti during a prostate cancer research team group meeting.

How would you explain your PhD in a nutshell? 

The current clinical practice of prostate cancer risk stratification after surgery is based mostly on pathologist assessment of cancer histology; so called Gleason pattern, as well as extent of cancer growth inside the prostate. Additionally, serum levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) are measured before and after surgery, and used for risk stratification, among other clinical parameters.

These tools are sufficient for low- and high-grade prostate cancer, but do not work well in the intermediate-grade prostate cancers. Since all cancer treatments harbour a risk of side effects, doctors do not want to manage indolently behaving prostate cancers with aggressive treatments, to avoid harm. This leads to reactive, rather than proactive management of prostate cancer after surgery.

Some RNA biomarkers have already been demonstrated to outperform the traditional clinical parameters, but clinical trial level evidence is missing, and the new biomarker panels are prohibitively expensive.

Our aim is to try to find new biomarkers, which would allow us to better risk stratify intermediate-risk prostate cancer after surgery, to better target treatments according to individual risk of progression.

However, any preliminary findings during my thesis work will have to be further researched, before they can be translated to clinical work.

What have been the most rewarding and the most difficult aspects of pursuing your PhD?

Both the best and the most challening part of my PhD studies has been learning data management and advanced statistical analysis techniques.

Is there some advice you would give to other aspiring PhD Students?

Jump on board! I do not believe in being gifted, rather, I believe in hard work. You probably will not have the skill set required to complete your PhD studies before you start, and no-one including the supervisors, should expect it to be so. Thus, you can start without having any pressure, or any previous experience on management of medical data, statistics, hypothesis-generation, critical appraisal of data, communication or any presumed research-related skills.

You might have been able to prepare for all steps in your student career before the PhD, but I would argue, that you cannot prepare or be ready for the PhD project before-hand. You will learn an incredible amount during your studies and there will be moments of absolute joy and absolute frustration. In the end, most obstacles can be overcome by hard work and communicating with your peers, collaborators and supervisors.

In the end, you will be able to exchange a book and some gray hair for a hat and a sword as well as a shiny new title!

What are your plans after completing your PhD?

I plan to go back to clinical work and continue research on the side. At some point, I would like to specialize in something, but have not definitively decided, if it might be general medicine, urology, or something completely different. I would also like to teach medical students in the university at some point. We will see, what the future holds!

About Timo-Pekka:

  • I try to keep active; physically, by going to the gym and walking; mentally, by reading books and playing video games
  • I’m also a technology enthusiast and and dabble in the basics of programming from time to time on my free time.
  • My favourite food is everything tasty! From sushi to Nepalese curries. 
  • My favourite entertainment genres, be it TV show, podcast or otherwise, are true crime and historical dramas.