Ville Hietakangas conducts basic research that helps increase understanding of diabetes and fatty liver

The professor of epigenetics is inspired by the intestinal regulation of metabolism.

What are your research topics?

I investigate nutrient sensing in animals, or how the cells of the body interpret information on their nutritional state and how that affects animal physiology, for example, through gene regulation.

A well-known example of nutrient sensing is the secretion of insulin from the pancreatic islets as a result of an elevated blood glucose level. Cell signalling activated by insulin guides cells in the body to admit glucose, which lowers the glucose concentration of blood.

There is a large number of similar mechanisms regulating the metabolic equilibrium of the body and cells. The functioning of many such mechanisms is poorly known, while certain regulators are yet to be identified.

In this field of nutrient sensing, my research group is focused on, among other things, the gene regulation associated with sensing sugars as well as the nutrient regulation of intestinal stem cells. Our primary study model is the fruit fly, as the genetic research tools provided by it make it possible to analyse even complex mechanisms. 

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

My research topic is closely connected with metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and fatty liver. And stem cell regulation is very important in terms of maintaining tissue function in the elderly.

The research our group conducts is basic in nature. In other words, instead of trying to solve practical problems, we aim to identify previously unknown regulatory mechanisms and determine how they function. It is only afterwards that we can see how this information relates to pathogenetic mechanisms.

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

The intestine. For specialists of nutrient sensing, it’s a very interesting organ where a great deal of metabolic regulation and related signalling takes place. Thanks to the funding awarded to the Centre of Excellence in Stem Cell Metabolism, we have developed effective new analysis techniques with which we are able to collect enormous quantities of high-quality data on intestinal cells and their metabolism. Currently, we are working on several tremendously fascinating projects pertaining to the nutrient regulation of intestinal cells.

Ville Hietakangas is the professor of epigenetics at the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

Watch Ville Hietakangas's inaugural lecture as a new professor on the 10th of September on YouTube.

Read about the other newly appointed professors here.