Ensuring the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) continues to lead at home in the molecular medicine field and grows in international prominence are among the goals of FIMM’s new director Dr. Jaakko Kaprio.
“Molecular medicine is evolving rapidly and we need an institute in Finland that is at the forefront of the area of research,” Kaprio said. “FIMM has grown rapidly and has now reached a plateau of about 200 staff members, but can certainly grow further.”
Kaprio succeeds Professor Olli Kallioniemi, who was appointed the director of the Science for Life Laboratory in Sweden. For the past 14 years, Kaprio worked as a professor of genetic epidemiology in the Department of Public Health, University of Helsinki and as a research professor at the National Institute for Health and Welfare.
“I was asked about my interest in the position, and given the reputation of FIMM, I decided to apply,” noted Kaprio.
Since its founding in 2007, FIMM has concentrated on identifying causes of diseases at the molecular level to enhance prevention, diagnosis and treatment. FIMM also seeks to develop individualized treatments that can be more effective in combatting illnesses. According to its website, FIMM integrates molecular medicine research, Technology Centre and Biobanking Infrastructures in its work to promote “translational research and the adoption of personalized medicine in health care.” About 36 percent of FIMM’s employees are from abroad and more than 20 nationalities are represented.
FIMM researchers are involved in several Grand Challenge projects, the website notes. The 16 research groups at FIMM are focusing on cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, neuropsychiatric diseases, immunological diseases and viral infections.
“The Grand Challenge programs are directed towards societal challenges,” said Kaprio. “They are truly translational, such that the results of the ISM approach in leukemia that was implemented right away. In personalized medicine, research projects, such as KardioKompassi, GeneRISK are developing ways to deliver personalized disease risk information to the citizens. Within human genomics, the Sequencing Initiative Suomi (SISu) project aims to generate, integrate and harmonize whole genome and whole exome sequence data from Finnish samples and provide data resources for the research community.”
Work by FIMM researchers has led to the identification of various genetic risk factors for many complex diseases, Kaprio said, and calculating risk scores based on this information has enabled researchers to identify individuals with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, for example.
His research group is exploring the interplay of genetic and environmental effects on behavioral risk factors for complex disease.
“They encompass studies into smoking, alcohol use, sleep, physical inactivity and obesity as well as nicotine and alcohol dependence,” he said. “These are highly complementary with existing human genomics research into cardiovascular disease and neuropsychiatric conditions.”
Kaprio’s own interest in genetic epidemiology stems from work with the Finnish Twin Cohorts, which began in 1976. “First I did primarily studies on exposure-discordant pairs, to investigate the causality between exposure and disease,” explained Kaprio. “In the 1980s we increasing did studies on the genetic architecture of traits, including estimating heritability.”
This new approach to research and medicine also brings new challenges. “This means negotiating with ethical committees and various authorities to reach a mutual understanding of the means and goals of the research,” noted Karpio. “For cancer research, every cancer is a different disease and because cancer evolves, there is great heterogeneity between patients and also within one patient.”
Another challenge for Karpio is securing new funding sources for FIMM, since many of the foundations providing financing pledged support for only the first five years. “We are expanding company collaborations and actively seeking other sources of funding,” according to Kaprio. “The University of Helsinki has put forth plans for the creation of a Helsinki Life Sciences Center as an umbrella organization.” That plan is scheduled to be ready by 2016, and FIMM will play a major role in the center. “This will provide an opportunity to expand good practices developed at FIMM to the wider university community.”
Kaprios leadership style
Overseeing his own research group and working as a department head have helped shape the leadership style Kaprio brings to FIMM. “I try to listen to people around me, taking their interests and concerns into account, which is important when considering decisions,” he explained. “In a research institute, there are many very smart and ambitious persons who carry out the research and take the institute forward. Externally, I represent this extraordinary group of people to our university leaders, funders and other stakeholders. Internally, I aim to treat all the staff of the institute on an equal footing.”
Education: M.D., 1976 and Ph.D. 1984 from the University of Helsinki
Family: Married, three grown children
Interests: cycling, jogging, listening to music, reading about history, current politics and science
Role models: In epidemiology, in which I trained first, I consider Olli Miettinen an exceptional thinker and developer of theoretical considerations. In genetics, Leena Peltonen was a charismatic leader in Finland, who had a grand vision of where genetic research was going.
Photographer: Maija Pollari