Stem cell researcher studies the mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease
Riikka Lund received the Millennium Distinction Award granted by the Technology Academy Finland in November 2013. It is given for Finnish top expertise in the same field as the winner of the most recent Millennium Technology Prize, which was granted in 2012 to Shinya Yamanaka, the Japanese pioneer of stem cell research for his work on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS).
Riikka Lund studies stem cells in the Turku Centre for Biotechnology which is based in BioCity, Turku Science Park.
“It was great to receive such a recognition. The award came as a total surprise, because the recipient was chosen on the basis of an outside proposition. We didn’t know anything about it”, Dr Lund says, pleased.
The iPS technology enables the use of personal stem cell models, which can be utilised, for example, in the study of the suitability of a certain drug to a person, and, in the future, in the study of pathogenic mechanisms of diseases and methods for their treatment.
According to Dr Lund, using the person’s own stem cells eliminates the ethical problems related to the use of embryonic stem cells. The use of embryonic stem cells in research has been met with opposition, because early human life is destroyed in the production of cell lines, although the cells are excess cells from fertility treatment which would otherwise be disposed of. Furthermore, a method has been successfully developed in Sweden in which the embryo survives.
Rapid development around the world
”There is huge potential in the use of stem cells and the field is developing very rapidly. Just following the development takes a lot of time, as new publications are coming out continuously. The controlled differentiation of stem cells is not yet managed very well, the research is most advanced in the differentiation of nerve cells. A trachea has been built from adult stem cells, and the treatment of blindness has entered the clinical phase”, Dr Lund says.
Stem cell research is new in global scale. The first human stem cell line was derived by James Thomson in Wisconsin, USA, and he has also developed the culture methods. In Sweden, Outi Hovatta’s research group has pioneered in producing several stem cell lines. Stem cell research is a major step forwards e.g. for the study of the mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases on live human cells, because previously the research was limited to imaging methods and pathological studies.
Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John B. Gurdon received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2012 for their research of the iPS method which is currently studied further in a number of countries. Japan has invested a great deal in research, and studies are also in progress in the USA end Europe. In Great Britain, a stroke study which uses nerve stem cells originally isolated from embryos has proceeded to clinical phase.
Finnish stem cell research needs money
In Finland, stem cell research is a fairly new field, and Riikka Lund says that it has been difficult to obtain funding, so hopefully the publicity generated by the award will bring more resources to stem cell research.
In the Turku Centre for Biotechnology Riikka Lund works as the Head of the laboratory of the Finnish Microarray and Sequencing Centre and leads the stem cell research group together with Professor Riitta Lahesmaa.
“I have two main goals regarding stem cell research. The first one is to learn to use stem cells safely. Culturing them is very demanding, as they change very quickly and the changes must be spotted on time, because they also carry a risk of cancer. The other goal is to utilise the iPS method in modelling diseases”, Dr Lund says.
The Finnish Microarray and Sequencing Centre develops and maintains state-of-the-art technologies for researching genomes and their regulation. There are several different projects that use these latest technologies in the research of different diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, type 1 diabetes, and asthma. Their partners include Juha Rinne’s group for Alzheimer’s disease, Riitta Lahesmaa’s and Mikael Knip’s groups for diabetes, and Tuomas Jartti’s group for asthma.
“My research focuses on Alzheimer’s disease. It’s still in its early phase, but I hope that five years from now we will have some significant results”, Riikka Lund says.
Culturing stem cells requires constant monitoring
Looking after stem cell cultures is full-time work. In the Turku Centre for Biotechnology it is done by a number of people working in shifts, but when Riikka Lund was a visiting researcher in Sheffield, she had to work 12–16 hours a day without any days off for 18 months.
“It was hard, because my kids only stayed in England for six months and I missed them a lot, although my family visited monthly. On the other hand, I was really able to focus on research and it was very rewarding, because I have always wanted to be a researcher. As the stem cell cultures have to be monitored so closely, you kind of become attached to them. They’re a bit like your own children”, Riikka Lund says and smiles.
In Finland, work often follows her home, because the busy researcher does not have the time to do everything during the working hours. As the mother of young children she has to get home on time, though, especially if her husband happens to be on a business trip. The family likes it in Naantali where they built a detached house a year ago in the peaceful Metsäluikkio district.
“Naantali is a small and nice place to live in. There are various leisure activities available and nature is always close”, Riikka Lund says.
• Born in 1974 in Hämeenlinna
• M.Sc. (Genetics), University of Turku 2001
• Ph.D., University of Turku 2004, doctoral dissertation on the development of immune defence
• Postdoctoral fellow, Centre for Stem Cell Biology, University of Sheffield 2007–2008
• In Turku Centre for Biotechnology:
- Head of the laboratory of the Finnish Microarray and Sequencing Centre
- Leader of the stem cell research group together with Professor Riitta Lahesmaa
• Lives in Metsäluikkio district in Naantali
• Family: husband and two children (aged 9 and 7)
• Hobbies: work, family, playing the piano, jogging and genealogy
• Received the Millennium Distinction Award granted by the Technology Academy Finland in 2013 for stem cell research related to the iPS method. Japanese stem cell researcher and pioneer of the iPS method Shinya Yamanaka and British researcher Sir John B. Gurdon received the Nobel prize in Medicine in 2012. They have studied the development of cells and especially how differentiated cells can be reprogrammed into stem cells. Dr Yamanaka was also granted the Millennium Technology Prize in 2012.
TEXT AND PHOTOS: Anne Kortela