Understanding the dog genome offers insight into human diseases

A dissertation on canine genetic disorders received the outstanding dissertation award at the University’s anniversary celebration, along with two other works.

Researcher Marjo Hytönen was one of three award winners when dissertations of exceptional merit were honoured on 26 March at the University’s annual celebration.

Hytönen’s dissertation discusses congenital defects in dogs and is based on her work on canine genetics in the research group led by award-winning Professor Hannes Lohi. Hytönen is delighted that this new field of veterinary genetics, made popular by her research group, generates practical tools for understanding and promoting both canine and human health.

Help from dog owners

Hytönen’s dissertation focuses on general issues of developmental biology as well as the finer points of three hereditary defects in dogs which have similarities to human disorders. For example, ectodermal dysplasia disrupts the development of teeth, nails, hair and glands.

Hytönen used the dogs of individual pet owners in her study, and one of the many major fruits of her labour is the creation of an extensive cooperation network among dog enthusiasts.

Healthier breeding

The study utilises an unusually wide range of methodologies. Thanks to this broad approach, Hytönen discovered not only new genetic mechanisms that contribute to disorders, but also new genes and mutations. The reasons for granting the award to Hytönen included the dissertation’s new and innovative ways of merging clinical veterinary medicine and molecular-level research.

Based on her genetic discoveries, Hytönen has proposed certain dog breeds in her study as good animal models to use in experimental therapies. Genetic testing developed by breed is also great news for dogs. Despite its recent publication, the study has already changed breeding practices towards producing healthier dogs.

Hytönen’s discovery of the gene responsible for ectodermal dysplasia, FOX13, led to a hypothesis of which gene might contribute to the equivalent disorder in humans, and further research has supported the idea.

Awards for intellectual history and cellular research

The other two dissertation awards were granted to biomedical researcher Olli Matilainen and Timo Pankakoski, researcher in political theory and intellectual history.

Matilainen’s dissertation focused on how cells maintain themselves through a “cleaning” process which marks incorrectly folded or otherwise damaging proteins for degradation.

If this process does not function properly, impurities accumulate in the cell, which has been found to contribute to several degenerative neural diseases and other disorders. Conversely, if the system is overly aggressive, it damages tissue by degrading useful proteins.

Pankakoski’s dissertation examines the work of Carl Schmitt, a political theorist who was influential in Germany during the inter-war period. According to Schmitt, politics is fundamentally based on the differentiation of friend and foe, and is characterised by the constant threat of conflict. Pankakoski himself is critical of the idea of politics as an unchanging concept independent of history.