15.10. 2013 Kuukauden kasvo

Ulla-Marjut Jaakkola and the numerous little helpers of science

Over a period of three decades, Docent Ulla-Marjut Jaakkola has made the Central Animal Laboratory of the University of Turku a unit that represents the Finnish and international top expertise in its field. It offers a safe and quality-certified environment to researchers for drug development conducted on animals. Dr Jaakkola wants to pay special attention to the conditions and well-being of the animals.

Animal testing and test animals have always been a subject that provokes emotions. The Central Animal Laboratory of the University of Turku represents the best preclinical expertise at both national and international levels.

The laboratory has been approved by the relevant authorities and complies with the OECD’s GLP quality system which aims at detailed documentation and reliability in order to secure the safety of chemicals and drugs. In October, the laboratory passed the GLP test for the eighth time. This time the inspection was carried out together by the Chinese and OECD officials.

Docent Ulla-Marjut Jaakkola, Director of the Central Animal Laboratory of the University of Turku, started in the University of Turku as an animal biologist 30 years ago. New legislation was being prepared at the time and it prescribed that a permission is required for animal testing as of 1985.

“I studied biology and drifted between ecology and physiology. Finally I went for animal biology and completed a doctoral dissertation on the subject. Although it was tempting to continue as a post-doctoral researcher, a rare permanent researcher’s post as an animal biologist suited our family better at the time”, Dr Jaakkola recounts the early stages of her career.

Knowledge decreases pain

The first test animal facilities with sufficient ventilation and the possibility to adjust the temperature and lighting in the animal rooms were completed in the Mikro building in 1983. The premises have not changed much and are still being used today.

The three test animal facilities currently located in the Turku Science Park area hold more than 11,000 animals. The vast majority of them are mice, and in addition there are a few hundred rats, and some rabbits and pigs. 30 years ago, there were mostly rats, and guinea pigs and hens were also used frequently.

Dr Jaakkola says that she awakened to the conditions of the animals when she understood the major effect of the environmental factors on the research results. Stress, untidy living environment, unsuitable temperature and many minor factors may affect the test results. It is not always easy for researchers to perceive them as they focus on their own research problems. Good living conditions are, however, a requirement for successful research.

“Training the researchers for studies on test animals is one of my tasks I consider particularly important. Another important goal has been to increase the knowledge about test animals in society at large. The horror stories of animal protection organisations often prevent people from seeing the reality, so we need to continue to provide factual knowledge about the conditions of the animals.”

“Animal caretakers are required to have professional qualifications, and it’s not always easy to find them. Central Animal Laboratory is not necessarily a dream job for an animal lover, but often people are no longer prejudiced after they have visited our facilities.”

Dr Jaakkola lectures annually to around 120 students who aim to work in the planning and implementation of animal tests by completing the course. Dr Jaakkola is also happy to introduce the test animal facilities both to the media and school pupil groups. There are some teachers who year after year bring their students aged 13–18 to see the operations of the centre.

“The best moments in my work are the ones when I can feel that I have got valuable information through. Such moments include, for example, lectures where the students listen instead of playing with their laptops. One fine moment was a letter I received from a schoolgirl in which she told that a visit at our centre completely changed her understanding of animal tests.”

Dr Ulla-Marjut Jaakkola and rats in the Central Animal Laboratory of the University of Turku.

Imaging used as help

Dr Jaakkola tells that a test on biomaterial implants made with rabbits had to be implemented on the floor due to expensive cages. It turned out that rearing the animals on the floor was important to the success of the test that set out to study how bone area heals and what kinds of effects the implants have on other tissues and organs.

“It’s a good example that the test animal needs enough exercise and space for the test to be successful. That allows the well-being of animals and completing of the test to go hand in hand.”

Over the years, the suffering of the animals in the tests has also decreased considerably. The symptoms of the animals need not be followed for as long as before; after finishing off, the study of the tissues and organs of the animal can provide detailed information on the effects of the tested substance or treatment. For example, a mouse with a cancer does not necessarily have to live so long that the metastases would cause suffering. With the current imaging methods the symptoms can be seen already before metastases appear.

Test animals are also controlled with precise animal records. The users of the ELLI system receive information and care directions through a browser-based interface. The system also alerts the researchers according to a three-step scale, so that they can react to the condition of the individual they are studying as quickly as possible.

Animal testing can be substituted with other methods, but Dr Jaakkola does not believe that they can be discarded completely.

“It’s hard to believe that during our lifetime it would be possible to evaluate the effects of new combinations of substances on vital functions using a method other than a live mammal. Only by using animals we can ensure that a substance has exited the body or see how it has affected the body.”

There are 23 people working in the Central Animal Laboratory of the University of Turku, of whom 18 take care of the animals. In animal testing, the researchers can take the measures themselves or to let the caretakers do them. The University of Turku is the most important user of the services, but a small share of the services caters the needs of Åbo Akademi University and other external players.

Lover of good food

Ulla-Marjut Jaakkola and her husband, biologist Jouko Jaakkola have two children and five grandchildren. Family meals are important, and Ulla-Marjut likes to prepare a three-course lunch or dinner at weekends.

“I also love going to the summer cottage, but unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to spend any weekends there after my holiday. I’m also an avid reader, I’m currently reading Patricia Cornwell’s novel The Red Mist.”

The Jaakkolas live in a detached house on Jaanintie street in Turku. Walking to work takes about half an hour in one direction, and she says that it takes care of her physical exercise.

Ulla-Marjut Jaakkola

• Born in Kokkola in 1950.
• Started studies of biology in the University of Turku in 1970.
• Defended her doctoral dissertation on animal physiology in 1983.
• Started as test animal biologist in the University of Turku in 1983. Director of the Central Animal Laboratory since 2000.
• Elected in October a member of the new committee and project permit board for the protection of animals used for scientific or teaching purposes for the term 2013–2018.
• Husband Jouko Jaakkola, two children and five grandchildren.