March 17, 2010

FINLAND: Leena Peltonen-Palotie, Human Geneticist, Dies of Cancer

. PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania / The Scientist / March 17, 2010 By Bob Grant Finnish-born geneticist and physician Leena Peltonen-Palotie, who uncovered numerous genetic mutations behind various human diseases, passed away in Finland last week at the age of 57. Peltonen-Palotie helped establish the human genetics department at the Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, held appointments at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston, and served as the head of human genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. She succumbed to cancer on March 11. "She was a world-class geneticist who was known throughout the world for her clinically relevant work in human genetics," said Gerald Levey, former dean of UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine who hired Peltonen-Palotie to lead the newly created human genetics department there in the late 1990s. Leena Peltonen-Palotie (1952-2010) Image: Academy of Finland Peltonen-Palotie was a prolific researcher throughout her 37-year career in genetics. Much of her research had its roots in her native Finland -- a country that keeps extensive genealogical and medical records on its genetically isolated citizens -- where she identified 15 genes that play a role in different "Finnish heritage diseases," rare disorders such as Cohen syndrome and Meckel syndrome that are more prevalent in Finland than anywhere else in the world. Peltonen-Palotie also tackled the genetics behind more common diseases, such as schizophrenia, lactose intolerance, obesity, and multiple sclerosis. In total, she published more than 500 scientific papers over her career, with three of her papers cited more than 500 times each, according to ISI. Peltonen-Palotie also used what she learned from Finnish genetics to understand other populations, and focused on bringing that knowledge into the clinic, Mark Daly, a geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute who collaborated with Peltonen-Palotie on several projects over the years, told The Scientist. Straddling the line between research and clinician was one of Peltonen-Palotie's hallmarks, agreed Levey. "She and her group were really the quintessential translational researchers," he said. "They were doing high-class science, but they were asking clinical questions. That's why she had such an impact in her genetics research." Peltonen-Palotie also waded into the public discussion on human genetics. "Leena was always at the forefront of the public policy discourse and the ethics discourse," said Daly. "It's extraordinarily rare that someone combines the highest level of scientific excellence, a remarkable dedication to training, and a commitment to public discussion. This is just a trifecta that's unmatched." Obtaining her MD and PhD in Finland, Peltonen-Palotie did a postdoc at Rutgers University in New Jersey, then took a position in Finland's National Public Health Institute. In 1998, she returned to the US to take the reins of the fledgling human genetics department at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine. Though she only stayed at UCLA until 2002, Peltonen-Palotie left her mark, largely through building what Levey called "a first-class training program and a first-class faculty in a relatively short period of time." Peltonen-Palotie left UCLA for a professorship at the University of Helsinki, then accepted an appointment at the Broad Institute. A position as head of human genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and more research focusing on disease gene mapping, followed. Peltonen-Palotie's accomplishments in science were matched by her personal warmth and approachability. "She had this very special magnetism that made her able to interact with and attract people," Levey said. "Leena had an amazing intellect, an extraordinary amount of energy. She was just an extraordinary woman -- full of life with a vision of where the field [of human genetics] should go." "She was a tremendously warm, friendly, enthusiastic, and encouraging person," Daly added. "We're going to miss her tremendously." Peltonen-Palotie mentored dozens of young scientists, supervising more than 70 PhD students over the course of her career, according to the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "As outstanding a scientist that she was, she was also deeply committed to developing human genetics as a field," Daly recalled. "I don't know of anyone who trained more PhD students than her, and had those students remain more loyal to her." "What she accomplished will last forever and will be built on," added Levey. "I have no doubt, even though she's gone, that those trainees will carry on her work and accomplish the kinds of things she accomplished. She will live on through all the trainees she mentored." [rc] © 1986-2010 The Scientist