Investigator Spotlight: April 2015
Heikki Hyoty, MD, PhD
Dr. Hyoty is a professor of Virology at the University of Tampere, Finland. Dr. Hyoty joined nPOD in 2007.
- Tell us about your education and background – where are you from, where did you go to school?
I’m an MD by basic training and completed my PhD in virology (the study of virus infections). I graduated from Medical School the University of Tampere, which is located in the city of Tampere, Finland. Finland is a small country in Scandinavia with 5.5 million inhabitants.
- Where do you currently work and what is your position? What does a “day in the life” look like for you?
I work as a Professor of Virology at the University of Tampere, Finland. My work includes scientific research, supervision of graduate and post-graduate works, teaching (lectures for medical students) and administration.
- Why diabetes? How did you get involved in diabetes and/or what made you want to work in diabetes research?
I have been studying the causes of type 1 diabetes (T1D) for 30 years, particularly the role of viruses in the destruction of insulin producing cells. I have been genuinely interested in exploring the causes of the disease, and I’m motivated to participate in the global effort aiming at preventing the disease. During my early career there were many coincidences driving me to the field. My PhD work in 1988 already focused on the role of viruses in T1D, thanks to my excellent supervisor, professor Pauli Leinikki. One of the most critical steps was a postdoctoral grant I received from JDRF in 1994. This grant made it possible to continue in science instead of clinical work which I was considering at that time. I established my own research group, studying the role of virus infections in T1D and have continued this work since then.
- Tell us about your research.
The aim of my work is to find out if virus infections can destroy the insulin producing cell in the pancreas and lead to T1D. Viruses cause diabetes in animals and this has motivated many investigators to look for viral fingerprints in human T1D. Many studies have supported the role of virus infections in some T1D cases. Currently we are focusing on one virus group, which has been the main suspect (enteroviruses). These viruses have been detected in the pancreas of T1D patients and epidemiological studies have indicated an association with increased risk of T1D. The aim is to develop a vaccine against these viruses and test if it can reduce the risk of T1D.
- What are your thoughts on the progress being made in T1D research as a whole?The progress I have seen in T1D research during my career has been just amazing. Many key aspects of the pathogenesis have been resolved including the identification of the genes regulating the risk of T1D and autoantibodies predicting the onset of the disease. We also understand much more about the immunological process in the pancreas. Patient care and insulin treatment have developed a lot too. However, there are still open questions which need to be answered before we can prevent the disease. From my point of view one of the key question is to identify those exogenous factors which explain the rapidly increasing incidence of the disease. We know that the effect of these environmental factors is very important in the development of T1D but none of them have been identified so far. Therefore this field has great potential for breakthroughs in the future. Many factors can be involved and I believe that virus infections are among them.
- Why is diabetes research so important?
Type 1 diabetes is an important disease both for the patient and for the society. It affects one’s life in many ways and causes medical problems which we should try to avoid by constantly improving the treatment and by developing means to prevent the onset of the disease. I’m optimistic that the science keeps making key discoveries which will eventually lead to the cure of the disease. It is difficult to estimate when this happens, and it may need several small steps. However, based on the speed of the recent progress, one can be quite optimistic and I hope to see these steps taken during the next 10-15 years.
- Do you have anything extra you would like to share? Is there anyone to thank or acknowledge?
Several great people have helped me during my career and e.g. the Finnish DIPP study has been a basis of many interesting findings. A significant part of academic diabetes research is done on funding from private foundations. In my case, JDRF has played a particularly important role from the very beginning of my career providing research funding to my group. This funding has made it possible to make many important observations about possible role of viruses in T1D, which would have not been possible to make without this funding. This funding has also encourage me to continue my research on this topic.
- When you’re not working, what do you like to do for fun?
In addition to the science, my family is the other main stimulator of my life. I like to also play sports and try to play tennis regularly. Like most Finns, I have a summer cottage which gives an excellent opportunity to rest during the very short summer period we have in Finland.