Department of Veterinary Biosciences

The staff of the Department of Veterinary Biosciences continued to be motivated, active and highly productive in 2015 despite the considerable cuts to personnel resources and the uncertainty resulting from the University’s ongoing cooperation negotiations. The previous cost-savings measures targeting teaching resources forced the Department to focus on providing and securing teaching at the expense of research. This slightly reduced the number of publications, but 100 peer-reviewed international and 32 other publications are nevertheless an excellent achievement. The Department of Veterinary Biosciences supervised a total of 44 Bachelor’s theses, 10 Licentiate theses and 14 doctoral dissertations. Two of the supervised dissertations were completed for the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, while four of the dissertations were supervised jointly with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine’s other departments. The Department also awarded three veterinary specialist degrees in infectious animal diseases and continued to engage in versatile international activities. Its teachers and researchers were also actively involved in the events celebrating the University of Helsinki’s 375th anniversary and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine’s 20th anniversary.

The Department’s key activities and events in 2015 are described below for each individual discipline.

Research and teaching at the Department of Veterinary Biosciences

 Anatomy and developmental biology. The research group of the head of discipline, Professor Antti Iivanainen, had an active and successful year. University Lecturer Mikael Niku received a three-year research grant from the University of Helsinki to investigate the impact of foetal intestinal microbiota on the early development of the immune system. Doctoral student Tiina Salomäki defended her doctoral dissertation on bovine mastitis. She carried out her dissertation research in cooperation with the groups of Docent Pekka Varmanen (Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry) and Professor emerita Satu Pyörälä. University Lecturer Juha Laakkonen continued his research cooperation on mouse lemurs with Academy Professor Jukka Jernvall (Institute of Biotechnology) in the form of joint publications. Laakkonen also supervised the completion of a dissertation on the temporal variation of nematodes in mouse lemurs. Close cooperation in canine bone disease research continued with Clinical Instructor Anu Lappalainen and Professor Hannes Lohi’s canine genetics group. Mikael Niku, as well as researchers of physiology and the Equine Hospital published their research on monocarboxylate transporters in horses in the Journal of Veterinary Research. University Lecturers Mikael Niku and Tiina Pessa-Morikawa maintained the two core research services – flow cytometry and laser microdissection – for which the Faculty is responsible.

Plastination models (photo by Juha Laakkonen): from the top, dog's hind leg and cat's lungs and from the bottom, dog's heart and head.

Plastination models (Juha Laakkonen): from the top, dog’s hind leg and cat’s lungs and from the bottom, dog’s heart and head.

Niku and Laakkonen, both of whom are members of the Teachers’ Academy, further boosted the discipline’s high-quality teaching. The feedback event for the teachers of the Toimiva elimistö (“The Functional Organism”) strand and students at different stages of study, financed by the Teachers’ Academy, provided valuable ideas for the development of teaching. Funds were also allocated to the development of instruction in digital microscopy, and a pedagogical study was launched on the impact of digital microscopy on learning. The discipline acquired more plastinated models to facilitate the understanding of soft tissue in macroanatomy and comparative anatomy. The Department continued to offer bovine palpation exercises for first-year students with teachers from the Saari unit. At the International Technology, Education and Development Conference in Madrid, Juha Laakkonen described the use of iPads to enhance anatomy instruction in dissection laboratories. Mikael Niku completed a two-and-a-half-month exchange programme at the University of Melbourne, focusing on teaching and research in veterinary medicine. He also received the Kannus award granted by students for inspiring work that benefits students.

The Finnish Veterinary Journal published Laakkonen’s article on the characteristics of the digestive tract of camelids. Niku continued as a columnist for Yliopisto magazine, writing about the state of the biosciences in Finland and the importance of science communication.

Santeri Suokas came on board on 17 August 2015 as a laboratory technician to be shared with the discipline of biochemistry, after the discipline’s longest-term employee, Tuire Pankasalo, retired from the position at the beginning of the year.

Biochemistry and cell biology. The head of discipline, Professor Jyrki Kukkonen, participated in national and international research and meta-research projects focusing on orexin and orexin receptors, and was invited to speak at events such as the European Society for Neurochemistry conference in Tartu, Estonia. University Lecturer Marjo Salminen continued her research on brain development and contributed as an author to the revised edition of the Kehitysbiologia – Solusta yksilöksi textbook. In teaching, the discipline took part in a biochemistry cooperation project organised with the other disciplines on the Viikki Campus and developed its own teaching by testing lecture recording, among other things. Kukkonen continued to contribute significantly to the work on entrance examinations for medical disciplines. The discipline’s long-term Research Technician, Pirjo Puroranta, retired on 31 December 2014, and Santeri Suokas came on board on 17 August 2015 as a laboratory technician to be shared with the discipline of anatomy.

Physiology. Professor Tomi Taira’s research group continued its successful research in the field of neurophysiology. The group participated in two extensive cooperation projects, the results of which were published in Developmental Cell (impact factor 10) and Schizophrenia Bulletin (impact factor 8.5). The first project focused on the significance and formation mechanisms of neuronal dendritic spines involved in synaptic changes related to learning. The latter was the first report on the association between the AMIGO/Kv2.1 potassium channel complex and a number of schizophrenia-related phenotypes. Taira continued as the president of the Scandinavian Physiological Society, which awarded him an annual grant of €50,000 for 2015–17 to support his prominent research in physiology. The focus of the group’s research has been shifting more and more from the functional description of individual synapses to a deeper insight into nerve-net phenomena in limbic brain areas. This has required considerable inputs into new cutting-edge measuring instruments, as well as into developing and implementing analysis and modelling methods for research purposes.

Three group members (Juuso Juuri, Natalia Luchkina and Dina Popova) completed their doctoral dissertations in 2015.

Genetics. Led by Professor Hannes Lohi, the discipline continued its excellent performance, with a total of 18 research articles published or pending publication. The discipline supervised the doctoral dissertation of Kaisa Kyöstilä and jointly supervised the doctoral dissertation of Heli Venhoranta with the Department of Production Animal Medicine. Research in the discipline is representative of breakthroughs in the genetic background of hereditary diseases. One of the research groups characterised a previously unknown gene change related to a neurodegenerative disease in cooperation with researchers from the discipline of pathology and the Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine (Kyöstilä K et al. PloS Genet 2015). This gene discovery in canines helped identify a four-year-old ataxia patient in the USA. Other significant research findings involved epilepsy (Koskinen et al. BMC Genomics, Jokinen T et al. J Vet Intern Med 2015), rheumatic disease (Wilbe et al. PloS Genet 2015), risk factors for anxiety disorders (Tiira & Lohi PloS ONE 2015) and the origin of dogs (Wang G-D et al. Cell Research).

The discipline of genetics was prominent in key national media, such as the TV and radio channels of YLE and MTV. At the invitation of the Academy of Finland, Professor Lohi also participated in the Art goes Kapakka event during the Helsinki Festival. In a departure from previous years, the discipline provided teaching in genetics on its own, without the eight hours formerly provided by the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry. The discipline hosted several international researcher visits from Denmark, France and the USA, among other countries. Lohi was a speaker at two events entitled “Our genetic future” in Imatra and Oulu, which were part of an Argumenta project funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation. Other memorable events in 2015 were the Faculty’s stakeholder events and the impressive conferment ceremony, where the discipline bestowed an honorary doctorate on Professor Michel Georges (absent). Professor Lohi also served as an opponent at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Microbiology and epidemiology. Led by Professor Airi Palva, the discipline and its research groups continued to produce excellent results, with a total of 66 peer-reviewed international publications and seven doctoral dissertations, three of them the discipline’s own (Carolin Kolmeder, Heidi Rossow and Eva Tuppurainen) and four of them supervised jointly with other disciplines (Anna Knuuttila, Christina Perez Vera, Tuomas Herva and Ingrid Hang).

In Palva’s group, University Researcher Ingemar von Ossowski, Ulla Hynönen, PhD, and Xia Yun, MSc, conducted research into the molecular and structural biology of pili in Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and two Lactobacillus ruminis strains from pigs and humans, as well as surveyed the role of pili in microbial adhesion to epithelial cells and extracellular matrix proteins in the host. The group also studied the innate immunogenic effect of the L. ruminis strain and its pili as well as their role in the inhibition of intestinal pathogen adhesion and functioning. University Lecturers Silja Åvall-Jääskeläinen and Joanna Koort as well as doctoral student Ravi Kant engaged in research cooperation with Suvi Taponen to study genes affecting the virulence and pathogenicity of coagulase-negative staphylococci from mastitis using comparative genomics. Ravi Kant also participated in the group’s other (post)genomics projects. Palva and Hynönen received new three-year project funding from the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation for intestinal bacteria research.

Palva and Professor Willem de Vos continued their successful cooperation during de Vos’s last year as Academy Professor. Carolin Kolmeder, who completed her doctoral degree in de Vos’s group, developed and employed metaproteomics to study the functions of the intestinal microbiota and its interaction with the host. Professor de Vos also served as a secondary supervisor for the doctoral dissertation of Ingrid Hang from the Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine. The group’s last doctoral dissertation (Pia Rasinkangas) also made substantial progress. Professor de Vos and his numerous international cooperation parties actively published articles related to the human intestinal microbiota and its impact on health. The year 2015 also brought success to Academy Research Fellow Reetta Satokari and her group as well as to François Douillard, PhD, whose term as a postdoctoral researcher funded by the Academy of Finland ended in August.

Professor Olli Vapalahti’s zoonosis virus research group published over 20 peer-reviewed articles in 2015 on topics including Ebola virus diagnostics, the epidemiology of arboviruses and rodent-borne infections, new viruses in wild and production animals, and new serodiagnostic techniques. The group surveyed the risk areas for tick-borne encephalitis as well as changes in them, and identified new parvoviruses in mustelids as well as a new arenavirus genus in constrictors. New deep sequencing techniques helped reveal a novel, unprecedented ability in arenaviruses: virus species belonging to the same family but differing in key properties can cause a concurrent chronic infection. In collaboration with Professor Hedman, the group continued to develop the new wash-free antibody detection assay based on the FRET phenomenon that occurs between molecules in close proximity. As the first clinical application, the group successfully employed the approach on clinical samples of the Puumala virus. Of the group’s members, Heidi Rossow (tularemia), Anna Knuuttila (Aleutian disease of minks) and Eeva Tuppurainen (lumpy skin disease) completed their dissertations for the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, while Christina Perez Vera’s (Bartonella) primary supervisor was Professor Thomas Spillmann from the Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine. In the Faculty of Medicine, Erika Lindh defended her dissertation on Finnish bird flu viruses, which the group investigated in collaboration with the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira. The research project, funded by the Academy of Finland, involved a sample-collection trip to Kenya (also to the University of Helsinki’s Taita Research Station) and new cooperation with the KAVI Institute at the University of Nairobi. The group also launched an EU/IMI-funded development project on Ebola and Marburg virus diagnostics, as well as projects related to the prevention and diagnostics of fur animal diseases. In June, Vapalahti’s group organised the 26th Sigrid Jusélius International Symposium: “Emerging infections” at the Hanasaari Culture Centre, Finland. The Sigrid Jusélius Foundation biennially supports one symposium, selected through a competition. The event drew some 250 participants and featured lectures on the emergence and spread of new infectious diseases (e.g., Ebola, MERS and influenza). The lecturers included some of the world’s foremost researchers (including Ron Fouchier, who identified MERS and has studied the mutation of the bird flu virus into one transmittable between mammals). One of the themes was “One Health”, a concept describing how the health and illnesses of humans are linked to the conditions of animals and the state of the environment.

Professor of Veterinary Virology Liisa Sihvonen’s research group focused on researching rabies and fish viruses in collaboration with the Veterinary Virology Research Unit of the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira. Liisa Sihvonen was appointed to the EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) for the 2015–2018 term.

The discipline enjoyed good teaching, and the student feedback was excellent, especially in the field of bacteriology. Online games for identifying bacteria, studying outbreaks of disease and completing exercises in statistical epidemiology continued to be developed with University Lecturer Anna-Maija Virtala’s personal allowance from the Teachers’ Academy and the teaching-development funding that the unit received thanks to Virtala’s membership in the Academy. Eveliina Pakarinen, Jouko Niinimäki and Tarja Holopainen, all students of computer science, assisted in the project, which also received funding from the Fuug Foundation. Anna-Maija Virtala also received a grant to provide teaching across faculty boundaries in cooperation with Vesa Niskanen from the discipline of agricultural economics. The module on collecting and processing quantitative material attracted participants from many faculties. Anna-Maija Virtala was also one of the supervisors of Tuomas Herva’s dissertation for the Department of Production Animal Medicine.

Senior Laboratory Technician Ulla Viitanen resigned from her duties.

Pathology and parasitology. Led by Professor Antti Sukura, the discipline had a colourful year, thanks in no small part to it organising the joint annual meeting of European (ESVP, ECVP) and Nordic (NSVP) organisations of veterinary pathologists. The meeting took place at the Marina Congress Center in Helsinki. The discipline and the Pathology Research Unit of the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira jointly arranged an international course in cytology, which offered diagnostic training and science throughout the first week of September. The course brought over 200 participants from various countries to Helsinki.

The year was also productive in terms of scientific postgraduate degrees, with Ilona Kareinen and Anna Knuuttila successfully defending their doctoral dissertations. Ilona Kareinen completed her research at the Wihuri Research Institute, while Anna Knuuttila cooperated with Professor Olli Vapalahti’s research group in microbiology and epidemiology.

To develop studies, the discipline launched a pathology rotation in the autumn term for students completing their clinical studies. The discipline now has students in their second, third and fifth years. The increase in the number of diagnostic samples, especially of surgical biopsies, also made for a busy year.

At the end of the year, the Academy of Finland granted five-year Academy Research Fellow funding to Sari Tojkander, PhD, and her research project on cellular forces in breast cancer invasion.

The year also included festivities and their preparations. Docent Anu Näreaho as Head Marshal and Dr Niina Airas and Dr Jere Linden were actively involved in the committee for the conferment of doctoral degrees. In June, guests and participants enjoyed the results of the committee’s work at the fourth and highly memorable doctoral conferment ceremony in veterinary medicine in Finland.

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