Department of Veterinary Biosciences

The Department of Veterinary Biosciences continued its successful operations in 2017. Tomi Taira succeeded Airi Palva as the director of department after her retirement. Olli Vapalahti, in turn, succeeded Palva as the discipline supervisor of veterinary microbiology. The year was characterised by familiarisation with new practices and services. The centralisation of academic affairs administration away from the Faculty to a service centre somewhat complicated the planning of teaching and the registration of completed studies, but gradually things started to smooth out also on this front. The department’s central activities and events in 2017 are described below by discipline.

Anatomy and developmental biology

For the research group led by the discipline supervisor, Professor Antti Iivanainen, the year centred on research coordinated by University Lecturer Mikael Niku on the impact of foetal microbial flora on the development of the immune system, supported by a three-year grant awarded by the University of Helsinki. During the year, the intestinal flora of newborn and young calves was mapped. When Mohammad Jaber Alipour transferred to other duties, Doctoral Student Aleksi Husso joined the group in early 2018. Research cooperation focused on canine bone diseases continued with Hannes Lohi’s research group. University Lecturers Tiina Pessa-Morikawa and Mikael Niku maintained flow cytometry and laser microdissection activities, the core services for research coordinated by the Faculty that were incorporated into the HiLIFE organisation.

The discipline’s teachers have been active in developing teaching, presenting their teaching projects at the international AMEE conference for medical education, held in Helsinki in August. The Bachelor’s Programme in Veterinary Medicine was among the first units to get University funding for the digital leap, to be used for supplementing digital learning materials in support of dissection exercises and self-learning, as well as developing the use of virtual microscopy in teaching. University Lecturer Juha Laakkonen was chosen the teacher of the year by sixth-year students. Antti Iivanainen has served as the director of the Bachelor’s Programme in Veterinary Medicine, as well as the Faculty’s representative in work concerned with entrance examinations. Mikael Niku represented Viikki Campus on the board of the Teachers’ Academy.

Marja Peltola began working as a joint senior laboratory technician for anatomy and developmental biology, as well as biochemistry and cell biology. In the discipline of anatomy, she coordinated the operations of the histology laboratory. As during the previous year, Senior Laboratory Technician Kirsi Lahti was responsible for the discipline’s research laboratory.

Biochemistry and cell biology

Research participation for Professor Jyrki Kukkonen, the discipline supervisor, included projects focused on orexins and their receptors, as well as related pathologies. Kukkonen contributed to the preparation, translation and assessment of the entrance examination for 2017. During the autumn term, Kukkonen was on study leave, substituted in teaching duties by Docent Pirjo Nikula-Ijäs.

University Lecturer Marjo Salminen continued investigating GATA factors, particularly during brain development, in cooperation with Juha Partanen (Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Helsinki), in part with funding granted by the Sigrid Jusélius Foundation. Together with international partners, the impact of GATA factors on the development of other organs was also investigated.


The research group led by Professor Tomi Taira continued its successful work in the field of neurophysiology and published, in cooperation with partners, five articles concerned with the group’s most important research area, the development of glutamate-mediated signalling in the brain. Taira carried on as the president of the executive board of the Scandinavian Physiological Society, which awarded him a €50,000 grant to support his research in the field of physiology. In recent years, the group has made considerable contributions to investigating neural networks and system-level mechanisms through both methodological and analytical approaches, which has further advanced the translational perspective of the group’s research. With Professor Timo Otonkoski and Professor Henna Tyynismaa, the group began collaborating on the research use of neurons differentiated from human-induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSC). University Lecturer Tiina Kukko-Lukjanov and Senior Laboratory Technician Kirsi Kolehmainen shared the responsibility for the electrophysiological study of organotypic brain slices and cell cultures, as well as the maintenance of related laboratory infrastructures. Both also coordinated the course assignments related to teaching.

The group gained another post-doctoral researcher, as Svetlana Molchanova, DPhil, returned after a successful post-doctoral research period at the Université libre de Bruxelles.

Tiina Kaarela, BVM, was appointed to a four-year doctoral student position funded by the Research Foundation of the University of Helsinki and will write her dissertation in the group.

Professor Taira is participating in the degree structure reform, representing the steering groups of both the Degree Programme in Veterinary Medicine and the Master’s Programme in Neuroscience (Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences). Taira has also served as a steering group member in both the Doctoral Programme in Clinical Veterinary Medicine and the Doctoral Programme Brain & Mind.


The discipline led by Professor Hannes Lohi continued its research activities through some 30 scholarly articles published or submitted for publication, as well as chapters written for the book Kiehtovat geenit (“Fascinating genes”). As in earlier years, the discipline’s publications primarily describe gene discoveries linked with various hereditary canine diseases. Among the most significant findings were those centred on canine epilepsy diagnostics and genetics, as well as acute pulmonary disease in Dalmatians and gene discoveries related to epidermolysis bullosa in the Central Asian Shepherd Dog breed.

The group’s research cooperation with various departments, international groups and businesses remained active. The discipline of genetics received a lot of publicity through central media channels. In September, Professor Lohi was invited to give a presentation at the European College of Veterinary Neurology conference held in Helsinki, as well as in a key genetics conference in Minneapolis. Professor Lohi was selected as a Fellow of the HiLIFE insitute, while the research group successfully applied for other international research grants. Genetics as a discipline is also taking part in the Faculty’s digital leap in education, trying out new digital tools and examinations in the genetics course. Further significant breakthroughs in diseases of the heart, the nervous system, the teeth and the eyes, as well as in disease metabolomics are expected in 2018. In cooperation with the Petsofi company, the research group piloted the digitalisation of a canine biobank, and another important new project related to the behavioural study of cats. Several soon-to-be-completed doctoral dissertations are also on the horizon.

Microbiology and epidemiology

The year brought great changes to the discipline of microbiology and epidemiology, as Professor Airi Palva, a long-term discipline supervisor, retired in May. Furthermore, Liisa Sihvonen, professor of veterinary virology and the research director of the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira, retired in December. Both are advancing their research projects as professors emerita. After Palva, the position of the discipline supervisor was filled by Olli Vapalahti, professor of zoonotic virology.

In Palva’s group, University Lecturer and Docent Ingemar von Ossowski and Doctoral Students Ravi Kant and Xia Yu continued their work in a project funded by the Academy of Finland focused on the genomics and the physiological and structural traits of the autochtonous intestinal bacterium Lactobacillus ruminis, prevalent in animals and humans, as well as its interaction with host cells and intestinal pathogens. Together with Suvi Taponen, University Lecturers Silja Åvall-Jääskeläinen and Joanna Koort, as well as Ravi Kant, investigated coagulase-negative staphylococci that cause mastitis through comparative genomics, while Ulla Hynönen, DPhil, worked in an intestinal bacteria research project funded by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation. The group’s activities produced altogether six peer-reviewed internationally published articles.

The research group led by Liisa Sihvonen, professor of veterinary virology, focused on investigating rabies and fish viruses in cooperation with researchers from the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira. The doctoral dissertation European bat lyssavirus type 2 in Finland: Surveillance, evolutionary analysis, and prevention with vaccination by Tiina Nokireki, LVM, was approved in November. Liisa Sihvonen served as a member of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare of the European Food Safety Authority in Parma.

Professor Olli Vapalahti’s research group published 16 peer-reviewed articles on, among other topics, new and threatening viral infections, such as the cellular interaction of the Zika virus. Late in the autumn, Essi Korhonen, MSc , and Suvi Kuivanen, MSc , group members representing the Faculty of Medicine, completed their doctoral dissertations focused on the Zika virus and other flavivirus infections, describing the isolation of the Zika virus from the foetal brain, which confirmed the link between the virus and microcephaly.

In cooperation with Anna-Maija Virtala, university lecturer in epidemiology, and the discipline of pathology, the research group has also investigated the aetiology and epidemiology of FENP (fur animal epidemic necrotic pyoderma), a new serious disease in fur animals, in the doctoral dissertation of Heli Nordgren, completed in November. Arcanobacterium phocae, the bacterium identified as the pathogen causing FENP, and fur animal diarrhoeal disease pathogens and their prevention have also been studied in projects carried out by Doctoral Student Kirsi Aaltonen, MSc . Studies on these newfound viral infections in fur animals and small mammals were also conducted in projects led by Docent Tarja Sironen. The group used its deep sequencing equipment (at Meilahti) to identify new viruses, utilising a detection method based on metagenomics and bioinformatics developed by Teemu Smura, DPhil, and Ilja Plyusnin, BVM and MSc .

The group has also continued mapping the mosquito species of Finland and Kenya, with the aim of identifying the viruses borne by them. This work is conducted in a project coordinated by Docent Eili Huhtamo and funded by, among others, the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, the Sigrid Jusélius Foundation and the Doctoral Programme in Integrative Life Science. For research focused on Kenyan arboviruses, samples were collected from febrile Kenyan patients. The project has been using the University of Helsinki’s research station in the Taita Hills of Kenya. Essi Korhonen is working as a post-doctoral researcher in projects related to mosquito-borne viruses. These studies also made use of the research station at the Taita Hills in Kenya.

Additionally, the unit launched a research project (Koort, Åvall-Jääskeläinen and Virtala) on the epidemiology and molecular epidemiology of the Capnocytophaga spp bacterium in cooperation with the National Institute for Health and Welfare. University Lecturer Sami Junnikkala’s projects have been focusing on tick-borne canine and equine infections and the immunology of sow colostrum.

Teaching and the development of new forms of teaching have been active in microbiology. Koort, Åvall-Jääskeläinen and Virtala participated in the digital leap project of the bachelor’s programmes at the University of Helsinki, gaining funding for developing a bacteria identification game and electronic calculation practice in epidemiology.

Satu Viljamaa-Dirks and Thomas Grönthal completed their specialist training (coordinated by Virtala), graduating as veterinary specialists of infectious animal diseases, Grönthal in cooperation with Merja Rantala. It was the first year of Virtala’s three-year term as a subject extern examiner at University College Dublin, Ireland.

Pathology and parasitology

The discipline led by Professor Antti Sukura employs, in addition to him, four veterinarians on permanent contracts, as well as a varying number of doctoral students and veterinarians in postgraduate education. Additionally, the discipline hosts a four-member research group led by Academy Research Fellow Sari Tojkander, funded by the Academy of Finland. The Finnish Centre for Laboratory Animal Pathology, a service coordinated by Research Coordinator Jere Lindén providing expertise in pathology and histotechnological services to researchers, also operates under the auspices of the discipline. Altogether five senior laboratory technicians and bioanalysts work at the tissue laboratory and the autopsy room.

In the year-round routine work conducted at the discipline, a surprising increase was seen in the diagnostic area: compared to the previous year, biopsy samples were submitted in significantly greater numbers to the discipline, concluding the second year of fast growth in the number of such samples. In addition to increased work for the pathologists, the increase in samples was reflected on the histology laboratory.

Fresh results were produced by doctoral education, with Heli Nordgren, LVM, celebrating her completed dissertation at the end of the year. Research was active in both pathology and parasitology, including cooperation with the clinical disciplines, the gene research group led by Professor Hannes Lohi, the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira and research groups of the University of Tampere. As a result of international research cooperation, an article was published together with the Polish Witold Stefański Institute of Parasitology. In addition to publications, research findings were successfully presented also in international conferences. At the joint meeting of the European Society of Veterinary Pathology and the European College of Veterinary Pathologists (ESVP-ESCVP-ESTP meeting in Lyon, France), Clinical Instructor Pernilla Syrjä was awarded the prize for the best poster. In the field of parasitology, the discipline organised the course Food and waterborne parasites – basics and current highlights for doctoral students, with lecturers from both Finland and abroad. The course was funded by the Doctoral School in Environmental, Food and Biological Sciences.

During the year, part of the staff moved on to new duties, but some fresh faces also joined the discipline. An era came to an end with the retirement of Ilpo “Ipi” Forsman, the senior laboratory technician of the autopsy room. Throughout the years, many of the Faculty’s staff members as well as former and current students have received help from Ipi. Ipi’s humour, brightening the routine, will be missed and remembered. A Facebook survey for graduated veterinarians produced a substantial amount of “ipisms”, memorable quips by Ipi recollected by students and former pathology staff members. A picture book based on these quips was among the gifts presented to Ipi at his retirement party.

In the future, Ipi’s duties will be attended to by Senior Laboratory Technician Satu Leppänen, while Sara Kotka and Karoliina Saarinen began as new members of the tissue laboratory.

At the pathology Christmas party, Senior Laboratory Technician Ariel Vázquez Bonachea provided instruction in the manoeuvres of Cuban salsa, after which he was taught Finnish line dancing “letkajenkka”.


Tomi Taira
Director of Department, Department of Veterinary Biosciences
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
University of Helsinki