Tarja Pääkkönen appointed the first assistant professor of the Helsinki One Health research network

Helsinki One Health, a network organisation focused on human and animal health, appointed Tarja Pääkkönen, specialist in veterinary medicine, DVM, docent, ECVN, as its first assistant professor in the University of Helsinki tenure track system. Position is shared by the faculty of veterinary medicine and the faculty of medicine.

Tarja Pääkkönen, the recently appointed assistant professor of the Helsinki One Health network, still remembers pondering in her freshman year whether perhaps veterinary medicine was a boring choice. That feeling already faded during the second year of studies, as Pääkkönen realised the vast range of career opportunities provided by studying at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. After graduation, Pääkkönen, who originally hails from near the city of Turku, followed her then dream and became a municipal veterinarian, until she decided to specialise in neurology. It was at that time that her interest in research was sparked.

- I soon noticed that the combination of clinical work and research suited me the best. I feel that solely focusing on patient care can easily lead to just routinely repeating the same treatments. Patient work becomes much more interesting when you are simultaneously keeping up with state-of-the-art research in the field. Then again, dedicating all my time to research would leave me out of touch with practice. Now I perceive what the patients need and where the problems are, while also gaining research material for my own clinical research, Pääkkönen says.

Comparative disease research shows the way

Pääkkönen has not regretted her decision. Today, she has more than a decade of experience as a clinical instructor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and a recent appointment as assistant professor in comparative pathology at HOH Helsinki One Health. The appointment is a result of Pääkkönen’s work in the field of neurological research. She has headed Neuropet, a specialised research group investigating canine hereditary diseases and their diagnostics, as well as developing related therapies. Pääkkönen defended her doctoral dissertation in 2016 on juvenile epilepsy in dogs.

Comparative pathology looks at, among other things, the pathogenetic mechanisms, treatment and long-term effects of various diseases in different animal species. Dogs and humans have identical receptors and neurotransmitters in their brain, making the pathogenetic mechanisms and genetic background of epilepsy very similar in both. Certain research methods are easier to apply to animals than to humans.

- For example, investigating the dietary treatment of epilepsy is easier with dogs. It’s difficult to order people to only eat the same dry pellets for three months straight and nothing else, with the exception of one oil supplement (the medicine). You can’t do that, but with dogs it’s much easier. Dogs live in the same environment as humans, to whom they are also much closer genetically than, say, to mice. The results are also applicable in human medicine and the development of therapies. This is what makes such research particularly useful, Pääkkönen explains.

Aiming for an increasingly comprehensive treatment of epilepsy and preventing the onset of the disease

Epilepsy is the most common neurological disorder in both dogs and humans, with very similar symptoms down to the pathogenetic mechanisms, associated diseases and drugs. The pathogenetic mechanisms of traumatic and inflammatory origin are also similar in dogs and humans. What makes canine research clearly useful is that long-term monitoring of the disease is easier with dogs, as their lifespan is shorter than that of humans.

Neuropet, the research group headed by Pääkkönen, applies several approaches to epilepsy research, with the aim of finding ways to treat epilepsy comprehensively instead of only with drug therapy. In its research, the group is also looking into the effect of various drugs on canine behaviour. Another important goal is to discover markers with which to predict which patients will respond poorly to drug therapy, as well as ways of tackling this problem.

Pääkkönen will assume her new position on 1 June, intending to direct research towards the root causes of epilepsy. What Pääkkönen wishes from the first five years of the HOH network is the significant strengthening of research collaboration in the context of a new operating model, particularly between the Faculties of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, as well as with international partners. Another aim is the significant expansion of the Neuropet group’s activities.

- I hope we get a lot of results in the next five years. I’m extremely proud to have been included as a member of the HOH network. It’s a really great and bold initiative which could even be described as being ahead of its time. The One Health mindset brings various perspectives together, and I believe this will also improve the status of veterinary research on a broader scale, Pääkkönen enthuses.


Director of the HOH network, professor Olli Peltoniemi

tel. +358 40 5381621

DVM, docent Tarja Pääkkönen

tel. +358 29 4157361