Academy Professor Sirpa Jalkanen follows the movement of cells
Professor Sirpa Jalkanen will start her third term as an Academy Professor from the beginning of next year. Thirty years in research have given her a vantage point to drug development in Turku, Finland and the whole world.
”I’ve run out of tricks but still have the skills, my father-in-law used to say. He reminded that innovation is needed when the old habits are no longer enough. That’s what keeps me fascinated about this work. And it also ensures that you will not gather moss in this job, but have to use your brain all the time.”
These are thoughts of Sirpa Jalkanen, Professor of Immunology at the University of Turku who will start her third term as an Academy Professor funded by the Academy of Finland as of the beginning of next year. Her previous Academy Professorships took place in 1996–2001 and 2002–2006.
Academy Professors focusing on research represent the Finnish peak of research work. After her doctoral dissertation, Dr Jalkanen continued her researcher career in the United States, in Stanford University. The family moved to the US for Sirpa’s husband Markku Jalkanen to chase a researcher career, and as she was unable to practice her profession as a physician in the country, she ended up searching for molecules that contribute to the movement of white blood cells from 1983–86.
“Back then it was a new, emerging field of study which drew me in quickly. Instead of paid work it became an addiction for which I had a real passion. In research work one has to have the patience to see through all alternative solutions and trust that some of them, one way or another, turn out to be the right one.”
After returning to Finland, Sirpa Jalkanen began to work together with Heikki Joensuu, Professor of Oncology at the University of Helsinki. The collaboration started in the late 1980s and still continues. Sirpa has always been interested in cancer and inflammatory diseases and their pathophysiology.
“A cancer that grows as a lump can usually be surgically removed, except in the brain. It’s more difficult to treat cancers caused by cancer cells that move in the body like white blood cells and form metastases when they penetrate tissue.”
In recent years, a number of diseases have been found in studies to be inflammatory. For example, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and atherosclerosis are explained at least partly by an inflammation. And just 10 years ago we didn’t know that obesity is a genetic inflammatory disease.
“Obesity is not caused just by excessive eating and too little exercise. The genetic factors and intestinal microbes, or bacterial flora, also affect. Obese people have more inflammation cells among the fat compared with people of normal weight, strict self-discipline may prevent gaining weight despite the genetic heredity”, Sirpa Jalkanen says.
Competition for top researchers
Three decades ago, American medical research was of top standard in the world. After that, European laboratories have reached the same standard. Most recently, the Chinese have progressed with their expertise.
In Finland, the positive news from biotechnology, and drug development in particular, during the past year have increased the recognition of BioTurku as the most important biotechnology cluster in the country. The life science business has become an important source of income for Turku.
“Major pharmaceutical industry players, such as Bayer-Schering and Orion account for a considerable share of the corporation tax accrual in Turku.”
Sirpa Jalkanen reminds that competition for top experts is fierce. 30 years ago, there were very few foreign researchers in the local pharmaceutical companies and universities. Today, we live in a global world, and a large part of the employees come from outside Finland. And we have to fight for their expertise for real.
“Even though Turku has become more attractive and better known, it’s not very easy to get the very best researchers to work here. We do have good experts, but can’t afford to pay enough to the top people.”
“In Sweden, the Karolinska Institutet has succeeded to attract Finnish professors by providing them with research groups with as many as 10 researchers. We can’t compete with that, but that’s the way we should be going. Talented researchers and researcher groups attract more experts.”
The pioneers of Biotie
Sirpa and Markku Jalkanen’s research results and patents were the underlying factor when the Jalkanens founded Biotie Therapies in Turku in the early 1990s. VAP-1 (vascular adhesion protein-1) is an antibody developed by Biotie for inflammatory diseases for a long time. The development work started already in the 1980s and was published in 1992. Thus it has been going on for more than 20 years.
”The product has not been developed at full weight all the time, but hopefully the most critical times are behind”, Dr Jalkanen says.
In October 2002, BioTie, Contral Pharma and Carbion merged. At the same time, the Jalkanens left the new Biotie. Last spring, the company’s partner H. Lundbeck A/S launched Selincro, a drug for the treatment of alcoholism. Its effective agent nalmefene is Biotie’s first medicinal substance to go for sale, and has been developed since the late 1990s.
“It’s really great that the company has survived and got this far. It’s a difficult line of business and you can never tell whether you will succeed. Biotie now has the opportunity for a great future.”
The Jalkanens live in Kaarina, near the border of Turku, around seven kilometres away from the joint laboratory unit of the University of Turku in BioCity. In summer, Sirpa often cycles to work. She spends much of her free time with her family, as Sirpa and Markku have three children and nine grandchildren.
“Gardening and cooking are my other free time activities. In the winter I go skiing”, Sirpa Jalkanen says at the end of the summertime interview.
• Born in Jyväskylä in 1954.
• Started medical studies in the University of Turku in 1973.
• Researcher in Stanford University from 1983–86.
• Professor in University of Turku and the Academy of Finland, one of the leading researchers of migration mechanisms of immune system lymphocytes in the world.
• Has received a number of awards for her work, e.g. Duodecim’s young researcher award in 1987, Medix award in 1991, Maud Kuistila Award in 1997, and the Anders Jahre Award of the University of Oslo in 2005. First Class Knight of the White Rose of Finland in 2005.
• Member of the Board of pharmaceutical company Orion Corporation.
• Lives in Kaarina, husband Markku Jalkanen, CEO of Faron Pharmaceuticals Ltd, three children and nine grandchildren.