Department of Veterinary Biosciences (EBIO)

The year 2014 was a busy one for the Department of Veterinary Biosciences. Particularly the disciplines (anatomy, biochemistry, physiology and pathology) that are grappling with more or less temporary reductions to their teaching resources due to budget cuts have been forced to redirect their research resources to teaching. Despite this, the six Department of Veterinary Biosciences disciplines which function as three teaching units, i.e., healthy animal, microbiology and epidemiology, remained very productive. In total, the Department staff supervised 33 Bachelor’s and 9 licentiate theses as well as 9.5 doctoral dissertations. EBIO also produced 111 international peer-reviewed publications, some of which were published in highly esteemed top-level academic journals, as well as 17 other publications. The teaching provided by the Department was also recognised, as two of its university lecturers, Anna-Maija Virtala and Mikael Niku, were accepted as members of the Teachers’ Academy. The Department continues to be active in the international arena.

Research and teaching at the Department of Veterinary Biosciences

 Anatomy and developmental biology. The research group lead by the head of discipline, Professor Antti Iivanainen, continued its work successfully. Doctoral student Jenni Liljavirta defended her doctoral dissertation on bovine immunology and received a grade of pass with distinction. An article entitled “Expansion of the Preimmune Antibody Repertoire by Junctional Diversity in Bos Taurus”, part of the dissertation, was published in the journal PLos One. Research into bovine mastitis continued in a multi-faculty research group led by Docent Pekka Varmanen. The research determined the genome sequence of the mastitis-causing bacteria strain Staphylococcus epidermidis as well as the proteins the strain expresses, and made extensive comparisons with other species of bacteria. Doctoral student Tiina Salomäki mapped the genes which regulate biofilm production in another bacteria strain significant in mastitis. University Lecturer Juha Laakkonen‘s work on the three-dimensional modelling of bovine teats was published in the American publication series Anatomical Record. Other projects modelled hip dysplasia in dogs and its background risk factors together with Clinical Instructor Anu Lappalainen and the research group led by Professor Hannes Lohi, or examined the epigenetic regulation mechanisms of red cell production. University lecturers Mikael Niku and Tiina Pessa-Morikawa maintained the campus-level core facilities under the responsibility of the Faculty: flow cytometry and laser microdissection

Teachers’ Academy fellows Juha Laakkonen and Mikael Niku used their funding to develop teaching. They acquired plastinated teaching samples as well as a flat-screen television to enable a more versatile use of iPads in dissecting room instruction, and a canine CPR manikin for physiology exercises. They also digitised the collection of histology samples used in teaching and established a web portal for them. In addition, Niku organised a meeting for teachers of basic veterinary sciences and clinical subjects to facilitate the vertical integration of teaching. The pedagogical research of Juha Laakkonen and Tiina Salomäki was featured in an international publication series. Senior Laboratory Technician Tuire Pankasalo retired from the discipline on 1 January 2015.

Biochemistry and cell biology. The head of discipline, Professory Jyrki Kukkonen, has taken part in national and international research and meta-research projects focusing on orexin and orexin receptors. University Lecturer Marjo Salminen continued her research on brain development. In teaching, the discipline took part in a biochemistry cooperation project organised with other faculties on the Viikki Campus. Kukkonen continued to contribute significantly to the work on entrance examinations for medical disciplines. The discipline organised three public defences of doctoral dissertations, for doctoral candidates Jaana Putula, Maria Jäntti and Janne Hakanen.

Physiology. The research group led by Professor Tomi Taira continued its internationally prominent work on neurobiology. The group’s focus area is the mechanisms of neuroplasticity during the critical periods of brain development in mammals. In relation to this research, one of the world’s most esteemed scientific journals, PNAS, published the group’s results on the functional development of glutamate synapses. These results shed new light on the molecular mechanisms which regulate the maturation of signal transmission between neurons during the first weeks of life. In addition, the group published its research results in the top journal of its field, J. Neuroscience, demonstrating how the dynamics of information processing are regulated in the brain of a newborn animal. The group was also instrumental in many publications dealing with genetic disease mechanisms, further bolstering the strong role of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in the biomedical research efforts of the University of Helsinki. Taira’s research group received two significant grants in 2014: 150,000 euros from Biocentrum Helsinki as well as a share of the 814,000-euro grant awarded by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation to a larger consortium. Taira was also appointed as the new president of the Scandinavian Physiological Society (SPS). Established in 1925, the SPS is one of the oldest scientific organisations in physiology, and its members include the 2014 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, May-Britt and Edvard Moser. The SPS supports research and teaching in physiology, and organises an international symposium in its field every other year. The journal of the organisation, Acta Physiologica, is one of the most esteemed scientific publications in physiology.

Genetics. Led by Professor Hannes Lohi, the discipline and its associated research group continued to produce many results, including 8 significant publications as well as breakthroughs in genetic research on different diseases. The group discovered a gene associated with glaucoma in Norwegian Elkhounds. A gene test based on the results can prevent the breeding of dogs that become blind due to this gene. The discovery was reported on CNN among other media. The results may be significant in developing new forms of treatment for human patients suffering from the same genetic disorder. The group also created images of a hitherto undiscovered form of macular degeneration as well as the associated gene in the Swedish Vallhund. The hyperactivity of the MERTK gene discovered in the research may be treatable with existing inhibitors, and related clinical experiments have been launched as an international project. The group has also compiled significant new sequencing databases and infrastructures for dogs and cats to aid in future gene research. With the help of this database, the group has identified a canine genetic disorder equivalent to Raine syndrome in humans. The illness is characterised by many symptoms, including disorders in the development of dental bone. The research group also made a breakthrough in the imaging of a new degenerative neurological disease and its associated gene disorder together with the Department’s discipline of pathology and researchers from the Veterinary Teaching Hospital (Pernilla Syrjä, Tarja Pääkkönen) as well as a Swiss research group. The resulting publication is currently under review in the esteemed journal PLoS Genetics. The joint research project run by Antti Iivanainen and Hannes Lohi and funded by the Academy of Finland made a scientific breakthrough by locating the genetic sector related to hip dysplasia in German Shepherds. A new project was launched to focus on the imaging of developmental disorders in puppies on a clinical and genetic level. This research is similar to international imaging projects focusing on the genetics of developmental disorders.

Professor Lohi’s ongoing basic research is also producing new innovations to further clinical diagnostics. The group has piloted wireless in vivo EEG technology on Finnish dogs at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in cooperation with veterinary neurologist, Assistant Professor Fiona James of the University of Guelph, Canada. Several manuscripts are underway concerning this pilot project, which is part of Professor Lohi’s cooperation with the University of Guelph where he holds a 3-year adjunct professorship.

Hannes Lohi’s professorship in molecular genetics was made permanent at the beginning of 2014. The position is shared by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Faculty of Medicine. The discipline supervised or participated in the supervision of three dissertations: Saija Ahonen wrote about eye diseases in dogs, Alina Niskanen (University of Oulu) about the population genetics of dogs and wolves, and Karin Hemmanin (Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine) about the clinical and hereditary risk factors of stereotypy in horses. Members of the research group received grants from Finland: DPhil Elina Salmela received a one-year grant from the Wihuri Foundation, while MA Kaisa Kyöstilä received a six-month working grant from the Finnish Cultural Foundation. In addition, the international consortium coordinated by Professor Lohi, consisting of Finnish, Canadian and Portuguese researchers, was awarded nearly 900,000 euros of funding through the EU’s ERA-NET NEURON European Research Projects on Mental Disorders call for proposals. Professor Lohi’s group’s share of the funding from the Academy of Finland is 350,000 euros.

Microbiology and epidemiology. Led by Professor Airi Palva, the discipline and its research groups continued to produce excellent results, with a total of 65 international peer-reviewed publications and three dissertations. The doctoral candidates who defended their dissertations were MSc Simo Rintakoski from the research group of University Lecturer Anna-Maija Virtala, LVM Tanja Lähteinen from the research group of Professor Airi Palva, and MSc Jonna Jalanka from the research group of Academy Professor Willem de Vos.

A component article of Tanja Lähteinen’s dissertation, a study on the effects of the potential probiotic Lactobacillus brevis ATCC 8287 strain on the growth and immune function of weaning-stage piglets was published.. Professor Palva’s research group also produced a study as part of the EU-Interplay project, examining the probiotic effects of the Lactobacillus amylovorus strains in the intestines of pigs and their surface structures, particularly the significance of S-layer proteins for host cell adhesion, the prevention of pathogen adhesion and the development of immune function. The group also studied the molecular and structural biology as well genomics of the surface structures of other Lactobacillus species in the gut. The operon codifying the SpaFED pilus of Lactobacillus LGG was expressed in a Lactococcus lactis host, and its characteristics in host-microbe interaction were studied through in vitro experiments. University Researcher Ingemar von Ossowski and Professor Palva also studied the three-dimensional structure of the different pilus types of the Lactobacillus family in international cooperation. Professor Palva’s group also received significant 4-year research funding from the Academy of Finland for two researchers. Professor de Vos has conducted extensive research within the scope of his part-time position at the Faculty, including his work on characterising a healthy and unhealthy human gut microbiota using powerful meta-level technologies, which has resulted in several publications in top journals, such as Gut and Nature Biotechnology. Academy Fellow Reetta Satokari and Post-Doctoral Researcher Francois Douillard also had success in their research into human gut microbiota and lactobacillales in 2014.

Professor Olli Vapalahti‘s zoonosis virus research group published a total of 29 peer-reviewed articles on topics such as the epidemiology of arboviruses and rodent-borne infections, new mosquito-borne viruses, arenaviruses in constrictor snakes (one of which has been named the University of Helsinki virus) as well as new recognition methods for diagnosing tick-borne encephalitis, dengue fever and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever. In cooperation with Professor Hedman, the group has also developed new wash-free serodiagnostics based on the FRET phenomenon between light-sensitive molecules. In experimental infection studies conducted at the biosafety laboratory of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine as part of Heidi Rossow’s dissertation research, moles were identified as good amplification hosts for tularemia. Heli Nordgren’s dissertation project examined the etiology of the new necrotic pyodermia epidemic among fur animals. In the concluding section of her dissertation, Anna Knuuttila developed a completely new testing and sampling method based on filter paper slips. The new method will be used to screen more than 0.5 million fur animals for Aleutian Disease. Professor Vapalahti’s group also began a new research project funded by the Academy of Finland on the diagnostics and epidemiology of dengue fever in Africa. The research group has also developed and evaluated the methods used in examining suspected cases of Ebola in Finland. In addition, the group is participating in the EU-IMI-funded research project that is developing diagnostics for filovirus.

Teaching in the discipline also proceeded well, and accrued excellent student feedback. The development funding resulting from Anna-Maija Virtala’s fellowship in the Teachers’ Academy supported the further development of teaching. Under Virtala’s supervision, the funding was spent on developing online games to support teaching as well as other development measures. Virtala also visited Kenya to teach cattle health in an intensive course as part of the North-South-South Higher Education programme funded by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.


Trichinella maggots.

Pathology and parasitology. The year began pleasantly under Professor Antti Sukura’s leadership, with the examination of LVM Niina Airas’ doctoral dissertation Adaptation of Trichinella nativa in Host. In her dissertation, Airas examined the epidemiology of different Trichinella varieties in wild animals in Finland, and the differences between host animals in terms of defence against the parasite. The study also described a clinical case of Trichinella nativa, common among Finnish wild animals, in a housecat. Even though the parasite is common in Finland, it rarely causes clinically diagnosable diseases in pets and domestic animals. The discipline produced many scientific publications in 2014, with a total of more than 20 international peer-reviewed publications, two sections for a book, as well as other publications.

The discipline conducts both necropsies and examinations of cell and tissue samples from live animals as paid diagnostic services. The diagnostic work’s material is also used in basic teaching and specialist training. The discipline offers traineeships and postgraduate studies leading to a specialist veterinary degree in infectious veterinary diseases as well as the Diplomate of European College of Veterinary Pathologists examination. One of the many highlights of the year in diagnostics was the discovery of new viral pathogens in horses.

Ilpo Forsman

Ilpo Forsman

As part of the study reform underway at the Faculty, some of the practical exercises in pathology will be moved from the third year of studies to be part of the fifth-year clinical rotation. Carrying out this change and planning the clinical rotation made the year a busy one for planning basic teaching.

The surprise birthday party arranged for Senior Laboratory Technician Ilpo Forsman, a familiar figure in pathology for both staff and many generations of students, warmed the autumn of both the organisers and the man himself.



Airi Palva
Head of the Department of Veterinary Biosciences
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
University of Helsinki