Could the cure for severe brain diseases lie in Finnish genome data?

Finnish genome data resources and extensive health care registers combined with the nation’s genetic isolation provide a unique research setting for brain disease research that has garnered international interest.

One in three people will suffer from at least one brain disease during their lifetime. A total of €800 billion is used every year to treat neurological and psychiatric illnesses in Europe alone. This is equal to the amount spent on treating cancer, diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases combined. 

The Finnish population grew in relative genetic isolation, which makes its genome particularly interesting for research on, e.g., genetic variants that underlie brain diseases.

 “Two hundred years ago the Finnish population grew rapidly, but as the founding population was small, the genetic variants that happened to be present in it were the only ones that were passed on,” explains Aarno Palotie, professor of genetics at FIMM, University of Helsinki.

For example, in major European cities, the variation is so great that studying individual rare variants is not viable, as the sample sizes would have to be inconveniently huge.

­“In Finnish data, there is less background noise and the number of individual rare variants is large enough that studying them is statistically credible,” says Palotie.

A more profound understanding of how brain diseases are triggered can be reached when the genome data are studied together with patient databases, and the data are then interlinked.

“The goal is to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the vulnerabilities of the brain,” Palotie stated at Brain Diseases – Why to Invest in Research in Finland symposium organised at Meilahti on 14 October. He emphasised that it is vital for research that Finland invest in a comprehensive network of hospital-based biobanks.

Drug companies are interested

 “The development of new therapies requires that we fully understand the underlying causes of the disease,” said another speaker at the symposium, Ralph Kern from the American biotechnology company Biogen, which has been studying the treatment of multiple sclerosis for 25 years. In future, the company intends to study new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease using Finnish patients.

The goal of the cooperation between research institutes and companies is the development of personalised treatments. One of the main tools in this effort is the SISu (Sequencing Initiative Suomi) database, which contains Finnish samples sequenced by international institutions.

At the moment, the database offers basic information for all Finnish genome research, but the intention is to expand the project.

­ “SISu is at the first stage of what a reference database of Finnish genome data could offer. In the next stage, we will be able to combine the information on genetic variants with health data from our health care registers. State-of-the-art technology enables data mining without infringing on the privacy of the patients," Palotie clarifies.

Brain Diseases – Why to Invest in Research in Finland symposium

Researchers, business representatives and politicians attended the Brain Diseases – Why to Invest in Research in Finland symposium at the University of Helsinki on 14 October. In addition to Professor Aarno Palotie and Ralph Kern from Biogen, the symposium featured speakers such as Olli Rehn, the Finnish Minister of Economic Affairs. Read the Minister's speech from the website of Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.