Professor Pekka Vallittu: Biomaterials are a golden opportunity for Finland
The work of the Director of the Turku Clinical Biomaterials Centre is guided by passionate enthusiasm that originated in his youth. The positive outcome of research has further increased his enthusiasm and made the work feel almost like a hobby.
There are human skulls made of plastic on the desk. Pekka Vallittu handles them with experience, but the mood is far from gloomy. He smiles often, and the unreserved nature quickly reveals his Karelian roots.
The latest reason for a smile is the Kliininen silmä award for innovative research granted by the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Turku at the Medicine Days in Turku at the beginning of November. His research work has produced a number of innovations related to biomaterials, tissue-friendly materials, and treatment applications. The most recent one is fibre reinforced composite suited to dental restoration.
“I really appreciate this acknowledgement. And it’s not important just for me, but for the field of research on the whole. As far as we know, this was the first time the award was given to the field of dentistry”, Pekka Vallittu says.
Professor Vallittu has considerable merits in the field of medicine, too. His research group has developed a glass fibre reinforced bio-composite which is unique in the whole world. It can be used to make prostheses intended for the treatment of skull injuries, i.e. skull implants. The experiences have shown the benefits of the material compared with titanium and plastic which were previously used in prostheses, and a marketing authorisation is currently pending. A company called Skulle Implants Oy has been founded around the innovation, and Professor Vallittu owns a small share in it.
Development of skull implants
The development has proceeded from dentistry to medicine in small steps. Pekka Vallittu has been developing fibre reinforced materials since his doctoral dissertation in 1994. He started with reinforcements for dental prostheses and fillings, and moved gradually to areas with a greater health risk as experience was gained in durability and suitability to the body. At a later point in time, glass was added to dental bridges and prostheses, and it is now used in skull implants, too. Their development commenced in 2001.
In an introductory film on skull implants, a neurosurgeon cuts off the top of a human head and attaches a netlike implant in the place of the missing piece of bone using small titanium screws. Bioactive glass fibre lets blood and tissue fluid immediately through, thus enabling the growth of bone-like surface that endures impacts. On the inside, it remains porous, just like in a real skull which Professor Vallittu shows on his desk.
It started with model planes
”Glass wouldn’t be strong enough on its own, but when combined with fibre composite structure, it hardens and adheres to the bone. The structure of the implant resembles the wing of an airplane which has soft matter inside a hard shell. In fact, my research work originally started from my boyhood hobby”, Professor Vallittu reveals.
He built model planes and participated in competitions. While studying in upper secondary school in Mikkeli, Mr Vallittu had a summer job as a mailman, and visited a dental technician’s laboratory and got interested. In his spare time he read a dental technician magazine and spotted a piece of news about carbon fibre used as reinforcement of dental prostheses in Sweden. He knew carbon fibre from model planes and decided to become a dental technician. He completed a degree, but soon noticed that there are no reinforcements, so he started to make tests of his own. He also continued his studies in odontology and completed a doctoral dissertation on biomaterials. It was finished at the same time as he completed his studies for a Licentiate of Odontology.
“The research work was so interesting that it felt like a hobby, and I still find it difficult to tell the difference between work and hobbies. However, I don’t have time to do laboratory tests any more, but guide the research carried out by doctoral students. I wanted to make the skull implants myself, though, and made the first 30 by hand.”
Energy left for leisure activities
The lack of spare time is hardly surprising, because Pekka Vallittu still has a clinical teaching post at the teaching dental care unit of the City, a small private practice, and other teaching duties at the university in addition to heading up the Turku Clinical Biomaterials Centre and his research group. He does find time for hobbies, though.
”I left oil painting when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, but now I’m painting again. It’s a good counterbalance for my work that focuses on small details. I also do gardening and repair our old house. Sometimes I build model planes with my sons, and a few times a summer we go to fly them in Jämijärvi”, he says.
Frequent jogging keeps up the energy level, and Professor Vallittu does not even consider it a hobby. He manages with little sleep, so early in the morning he can deal with e-mails and focus on writing.
A fascinating future
Preparations for the industrial production of skull implants are underway, and they require special expertise, so Professor Vallittu can’t contribute much. Experts were found in different parts of Finland, and Skulle Implants now has around 15 employees.
“Biomaterials are a golden opportunity for Finland, and I think it’s important that the research and production related thereto will stay in Finland”, Pekka Vallittu says.
• Born in 1965 in Mikkeli, moved to Turku in 1997, lives in Kuusisto, Kaarina
• Professor of Biomaterials Science, Chair of the Department of Biomaterials Science, University of Turku, 2006–
• Part-time Chief Dentist, City of Turku, 2008–
• Director of Biomaterials Research Programme and Director of the Turku Clinical Biomaterials Centre (TCBC), 2009–
• Subject Editor of Journal of Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials (JMBBM, Elsevier), 2010–
• Honorary Professor, University of Hong Kong, PRC, 2011–
• Most recent acknowledgement: Kliininen silmä award 2013 granted by the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Turku
• Minority shareholder in Skulle Implants Oy
• Around 20 patented inventions, more than 400 published scientific articles and other publications
• Certified Dental Technician, Kuopio 1988
• Licentiate of Odontology, University of Kuopio 1994
• Doctor of Odontology, University of Kuopio 1994
• Docent in Prosthetic Materials Science, University of Turku, 1995–2006
• Specialist in Prosthetic Dentistry and Oral Rehabilitation, University of Turku 2000
• Wife Anna-Maija Vallittu (doctor in Turku City Hospital), two sons (aged 9 and 13)
• Oil painting, exhibitions together with Elina Uusalo in 2012 and 2013
• Repairing an old detached house and gardening
• Motor boating together with the family
• Model planes
• Mikkelin Klubi ry association and Academic Karelia Society of Turku (TAKAS)
• Rotary activities and other associations