New information on diseases that target tissues selectively

When the powerhouses of the cell malfunction, one person may develop cardiomyopathy and another a brain disorder. What is the mechanism protecting the brain of the heart patient – and vice versa?

Academy Research Fellow Henna Tyynismaa studies diseases caused by disorders in the functions of mitochondria, the powerhouses inside our cells.

Mitochondrial disorders are related to many common diseases, such as degenerative diseases of the nervous system, some of which are hereditary. The disorders also play a role in the ageing process.

“Mitochondria have their own protein synthesis which is required to maintain the energy production of the cells. We are studying this protein synthesis and its quality control mechanisms," Tyynismaa explains.

Researchers have been baffled by the fact that the symptoms of many mitochondrial diseases only manifest in very specific tissue types, even though the mitochondria themselves are at work in all types of cells, with the exception of red blood cells.

“A malfunction in the mitochondrial protein synthesis may cause cardiomyopathy in one patient and a brain disease in another,” Tyynismaa explains.

How do some tissues adapt?

Tyynismaa herself received a research boost recently, when she was awarded the European Research Council Starting Grant, an intensely competitive grant of 1.35 million euros.

The particular focus of her ERC-funded project are tissue-level signals and adaptation mechanisms triggered by disorders in the mitochondrial protein synthesis.

“Our goal is to determine the adaptation mechanisms that are triggered in certain tissues to prevent the development of mitochondrial damage. Recognising the mechanisms can help us develop treatments for these difficult diseases,” Tyynismaa explains.

Tyynismaa’s group is part of the Research Programme for Molecular Neurology at the Faculty of Medicine.

Butterflies and Augustinian philosophy

Other recently ERC-funded researchers at the University of Helsinki who, like Tyynismaa, are recipients of the Starting Grant, include particle researcher Mikael Ehn, butterfly researcher Marjo Saastamoinen and José Felipe Silva, researcher of the history of philosophy.

The latest recipient of the ERC Consolidator Grant, intended to launch the next stage of a researcher’s career, is Satu Mustjoki, who studies autoimmune diseases.