vaccines for local and global needs

Research Professor Pirjo Helena Mäkelä started her career in the 1960's, which was the heyday of molecular biology: humankind had discovered the basic principles of the molecular basis of life.

Mäkelä started studying medicine in 1949 and embarked on laboratory research together with her future husband, Olli Mäkelä. After Helena Mäkelä had finished her doctoral dissertation in 1960, the Mäkeläs left for California to do post-doctoral research: at Stanford University they both worked under the recent Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, but on different subjects.

Helena Mäkelä brought back a whole new field of science to Finland - microbial genetics. Some twenty years later, microbial genetics served as the basis for a new branch of biotechnology - gene manipulation. From 1963 to 1964 the Mäkelä family lived in London, where they had better access to state-of-the-art research facilities and international cooperation.

The international research cooperation resulted in the discovery of the mechanism by which genes determine the complex structure of polysaccharides, using bacterial lipopolysaccharide as an example. This discovery was of central importance for the whole field of molecular biology. It was common knowledge that genes determine the structure of protein molecules, but until then, scientists did not know how the structure of other components of the body and the cells is determined. The work with polysaccharides proved that its structure was determined by genes and that the process was steered by enzymes, i.e., proteins determined by genes. Subsequent research has shown this principle to be universal, applicable to the formation of polysaccharides in both plants and animals.

In 1964 Helena Mäkelä was appointed Head of the Department of Bacteriology of the State Serum Institute (presently the National Public Health Institute). The new methods of microbial genetics now opened up the opportunity to study the etiology of infectious diseases: the struggle for survival between the microbe and its host.

Helena Mäkelä has actively participated in the development and organisation of bacteriological diagnosis and monitoring of infectious diseases in Finland. As the chair of the Medical Research Council of the Academy of Finland she has greatly contributed to Finnish science policy, and as the chair of Physicians for Social Responsibility - Finland she has been actively involved with issues concerning research ethics. Her international activities are highlighted by her positions as the chair of the International Endotoxin Society and the International Union of Microbiological Societies.

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1 Pirjo Mäkelä is an internationally acclaimed researcher.
In 1969 she received the Robert Koch Award from Germany.

2 Front page news in Medical Tribune.

3 Pirjo Mäkelä 1998.

4 Magazine article on Pirjo Mäkelä.