Studying and counteracting the brain drain

Academy Professor Kari Alitalo has received an ERC Advanced Grant for his research project, which has a short and intriguing title: Brain Drains.

 “As the title says, we will study the lymphatic vessels which transport fluid, proteins and waste out from the brain,” explains Academy Professor Kari Alitalo. “our recent discovery of lymphatic vessels in the brain necessitates studies of their normal function and their significance in brain diseases.”  

The junior members Aleksanteri Aspelund and Salli Antila of Alitalo’s research group published the discovery of lymphatic vessels serving the brain in June 2015. A research group in the US made a similar discovery almost simultaneously. The lymphatic vessels in the brain received a great deal of attention. For example, both Nature Medicine and Science deemed it one of the 10 most important scientific breakthroughs in 2015.

“Our research deals with difficult illnesses of great socioeconomic burden, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis. With our network of partners, we are also studying the role of lymphatic vessels in the repair of brain damage. Even sleep may be regulated by the efficiency of the lymphatic brain drainage pathways.” Alitalo explains.  The new European Research Council (ERC) grant secures follow-up and escalation of these studies and boosts a big leap forward in the research on lymphatic vessels in brain diseases.

One of the goals of the ERC project is to determine whether an increased intracranial pressure could be treated by promoting drainage through the brain’s lymphatic vessels.

 “With the Finnish experience in repairing damaged lymphatic vessels with growth factor therapy in other areas of the body, we should be able to construct a kind of biological drainage shunt to lower pressure in the brain,” says Alitalo.


The discovery of the brain’s lymphatic vessels opened up a completely new line of research for Alitalo’s group.  

 “This is a new field for us, but we have extensive networks both in Finland, in EU and worldwide. Cooperation is vital to ensure both the necessary expertise and research infrastructure.”

The five-year grant of €2.5 million is considerable, but not excessive. Most of it – approximately €1.5 million in all – will be spent on research staff.

 “We will use the grant to establish a larger research group with three postdoctoral researchers, one doctoral student and one laboratory assistant. The remainder will be spent on reagents, equipment, laboratory animals and general expenses.”


Alitalo compares the progression of a researcher’s career to that of a film actor, who first becomes an actor, then a director and finally a producer.

 “I have become at least a part-time producer: I need to produce research programs which let junior researchers gain independence and move their own research forward. The best projects live on and prosper in global science,” he says.

 “I don’t want to turn off the lights in my laboratory for good when I finally need to retire!”

This is Alitalo’s second ERC Advanced Grant. In the 2010 funding round, he received the grant for the project “New biological functions and therapeutic potential of vascular endothelial growth factors”.

Kari Alitalo


1976 Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (USA) - exam

1977 M.D., University of Helsinki

1980 M.Sc.D. (basic sciences, corresponding to Ph.D. degree), University of Helsinki

Present positions:

Academy Professor, Academy of Finland, 1993 -

Director, Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in Translational Cancer Biology, University of Helsinki

Director, Translational Cancer Biology Research Program, University of Helsinki

Director, Wihuri Research Institute

Previous professional appointments:

  • 1977-1982 Research and teaching assistantships, Departments of Pathology and Virology, The Finnish Academy of Sciences, Helsinki, Finland
  • 1981-1982 Visiting Scientist, Department of Biochemistry, University of Washington, Seattle, USA
  • 1982-1983 Visiting Scientist, Department of Microbiology and Immunology,
  • University of California, San Francisco, USA
  • 1983-1986 Research Fellow, Senior RF, State Medical Research Council, Finland
  • 1986-1987 Professor of Medical Biochemistry, University of Turku, Finland
  • 1987-1988 Research Professor, The Finnish Cancer Institute, Helsinki, Finland
  • 1988-1993 Professor of Cancer Biology, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

More than 600 426 original publications.

Mentor for doctoral training: 46 completed thesis.

Honors / Award (selected):

  • The Anders Jahre Prize for Young Investigator, Norway, 1987
  • The Äyräpää Prize, Finland, 1998
  • Europe Medicine Senior Prize, 1999
  • The Lundbeck Foundation Nordic Prize, Denmark, 2002
  • Leopold Griffuel Prize, France, 2005
  • Eric K Fernström Foundation's Nordic Prize, Sweden, 2005
  • Louis-Jeantet Prize For Medicine, Switzerland, 2006
  • The InBev-Baillet Latour Health Prize, Belgium, 2009
  • The Anders Jahre Senior Medical Prize, Norway, 2010
  • Earl P. Benditt Award and Lecture, USA, 2011
  • Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine, Netherlands, 2014
  • Member, EMBO:n (European Molecular Biology Organization), 1990 -
  • Member, The Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, 1991
  • Member, The Finnish Society of Science and Letters, 2009 -
  • Member, Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, 2012 -
  • Member, National Academics of Sciences, USA, 2013