The Scientific Grand Prize is awarded annually to researchers who have made significant contributions to cardiovascular physiology, biology or medicine. The prize is 600 000 euros, which will be equally shared between the two laureates.
Professor Kari Alitalo is one of the 13 Finnish Academicians of Science, Director of the Wihuri Research Institute in Biomedicum Helsinki and a Research Director in the University of Helsinki. His main research interests include the cardiovascular system which consists of blood and lymphatic vessels. He is internationally recognized for his discovery of several growth factors and receptors that are important for cardiovascular development and involved in the pathogenesis of several human diseases.
His most significant finding was the discovery and functional characterization of lymphangiogenic growth factors and growth factor receptors, characterization of their function in normal development of the lymphatic vascular system, how genetic damage leads to tissue swelling in lymphedema patients, and how these factors could be used to treat secondary lymphedema. His group furthermore discovered an extensive (dural) lymphatic vessel network around the brain that transports protein-rich fluid out of the central nervous system and is now intensively studied in various brain diseases.
The discovery of a lymphatic system in the brain was ranked among the 10 key scientific advances of 2015 by both Nature Medicine and Science journals. The tools Dr. Alitalo developed for manipulation of lymphatic vessel functions have made possible studies on the importance of lymphatic vessels in various organs and in the pathogenesis of many diseases.
Lymphatic vessels are particularly important for fluid homeostasis in tissues, development of immune responses, uptake and transport of dietary lipids from the intestine, and a lymphatic-line vessel regulates fluid pressure in the eye.
The growth factors isolated by Alitalo’s research team provide an opportunity to develop new lymphatic vessels to replace damaged ones by gene therapeutic means. For example, a growth factor that Alitalo and his collaborators discovered has been found to be safe in a clinical trial aimed to repair lymphatic vessels in lymphedema patients.
Another growth factor function that his team has characterized in preclinical studies allows investigators to expand the coronary vessel network in the heart, suggesting that this factor could eventually be used to alleviate cardiac ischemia in patients. Thus the results of the team are likely to have applications in the therapeutic treatment of cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diseases of the eye.
Professor Alitalo thanks humbly the Lefoulon-Delalande-Institut de France Foundation and its scientific jury for this prestigious award, and all his collaborators and funding agencies for their valuable contributions.
His research related to the blood and lymphatic vessels has been supported by the Academy of Finland, Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation, European Research Council, Sigrid Jusélius foundation, Cancer Foundation Finland, Novo Nordisk Foundation, Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, HiLIFE Helsinki Institute of Life Sciences, Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa, the Southern Finland Regional Cancer Center FICAN South, and the Finnish Brain Foundation.