Viikki Molecular Nutrition group focuses on the effects of nutrition on human health.
Anne-Maria Pajari, Group Leader, PI

My passion is to understand how diets, nutrients, and diet-derived bioactive compounds exert their effects on human health at the molecular, cellular, tissue, organ and ultimately whole-body levels. I am particularly interested in the gut physiology and the effects of dietary protein, fibre, and polyphenolic compounds on the gut microbiota and metabolism. Despite many recent research efforts, we have just started to understand the whole potential and meaning of the interactions of diet and gut microbiota to human health and prevention of non-communicable diseases. Most of my research projects share the goal of gaining insights into the mechanisms between diet, gut metabolism, and health.

It has become increasingly clear that diets and food systems as a whole not only affect our health but also have major effect on environment and climate change. By reducing the consumption of animal-derived foods and increasing plant-based ones, we could achieve both health benefits and promote sustainability. However, we do not know what happens exactly in terms of nutrition when we start replacing animal-derived foods with plant-based foods. My goal is to address what is the bioavailability of plant proteins and how plant-based diets affect nutritional status.

In addition to research, I enjoy listening to classical music and have a season ticket to the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra's concerts. I also love reading about history, both fact and fiction.

Anne-Maria Pajari's research profile

Suvi Itkonen, University Researcher, Adjunct Professor

I am a nutrition scientist whose research interest lies in plant-based proteins/diets, vitamin D and (bone) health. I'm especially interested in the bioavailability of nutrients. I joined Viikki Molecular Nutrition Group in 2018 and have been involved in the ScenoProt, BeanMan and BeanBread studies. As a part of the Leg4Life project, I spent six months at INRAE/AgroParisTech in professor Claire Gaudichon’s group investigating the bioavailability of faba bean protein.

Apart from research, I enjoy being in nature, especially during autumn time picking mushrooms, chilling at (i.e. renovating) my +100-year-old summer cottage and travelling to unconventional destinations.

Suvi Itkonen's research profile

Mikko Lehtovirta, Postdoctoral Researcher

I graduated from the University of Helsinki medical school in 1989 and have worked as a general practitioner since then. I've been part of the Botnia study group since 1992. The group aims to identify and characterise genetic and other risk type factors for type 2 diabetes. I defended my PhD thesis in 2014, which was based on studies on insulin sensitivity and insulin secretion among Finnish adult twins participating in the Finnish Twin Cohort Study.

Currently I am a post-doctoral researcher in the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in Complex Disease Genetics, Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland and HiLIFE at University of Helsinki. My area of research is conducting recall by human genotype studies to phenotypically characterise rare genetic variants associated with diabetes risk.

I have had the pleasure to work as a research physician for Viikki Molecular Nutrition group since 2016. The first effort that I was involved in was the ScenoProt intervention study, where the influence of whole diet, with variable composition of animal and plant proteins, on risk factors for colon cancer and type 2 diabetes was studied. Our new collaboration Leg4Life intervention deepens this approach by exploring the influence of legume-based proteins on human health.

Mikko Lehtovirta's research profile

Emma Kynkäänniemi, Doctoral Researcher

My doctoral research focuses on investigating the effects of birch and spruce wood extracts on colon physiology and gut microbiota in rats. These by-products of forest industry are sustainable, abundantly available and have excellent stabilising properties with the potential to be utilised in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Due to the richness of fiber and polyphenols in these extracts, I am particularly interested in investigating their effect on gut health. I am absolutely delighted that I have the opportunity to combine the topics of sustainability and nutrition as these are the two fields I'm most passionate about.

Apart from research, I enjoy doing yoga (especially the dead man's pose, also known as the shavasana) and cooking with my friends.

Emma Kynkäänniemi's research profile

Tiina Pellinen, Doctoral Researcher

I am a nurse and a Master of Health Sciences. I started working in the ScenoProt project in 2016 as a research nurse and since 2017 as a PhD student. The aim of my PhD studies is to assess how replacing animal proteins with plant protein sources affects nutritional quality of the diet and in particular, what happens with intakes of nutrients and their biomarker status. In addition, I also aim to identify drivers and barriers for following more plant protein-based diets using experience diaries from study participants. 

Besides my work, I like to walk and cycle outside as well as spend time with my children.

Hana Slabá, Doctoral Researcher

I completed my M.Sc. degree at the University of South Bohemia in Czech Republic majoring in Parasitology. In my master's thesis, I characterised novel serine protease inhibitor TILIr from Ixodes ricinus tick. I started my PhD studies at the University of Helsinki in January 2020.

Currently I am interested in the impact of dietary habits on faecal water genotoxicity. The focus of my research is on the cell fate after exposure to faecal water extracted from stool samples collected during dietary intervention with healthy volunteers. My goal is to measure the genotoxicity of faecal water and to compare the impact of the dietary patterns on the level of faecal water genotoxicity. I focus on detecting DNA damage sites by targeting phosphorylated H2A histone variant, H2AX, which has been recognized as a reliable marker for DNA damage, a prerequisite for tumorigenesis. Use of H2AX as a biomarker has great potential in diagnostics, prevention as well as future treatment of colorectal cancer.

Besides science, I enjoy travelling, reading, DIY-ing and spending time in nature.

Hana Slabá's research profile

Tuulia Pietilä, Doctoral Researcher

I joined the Viikki Molecular Nutrition group in September 2020 for a research internship. Following the internship, I continued in the Leg4Life project by conducting my Master’s thesis, focusing on the effects of partial replacement of red and processed meat with legumes on fecal concentration of potentially carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. I completed my M.Sc. at the University of Helsinki in the summer 2021 majoring in human nutrition.

My current research in Leg4Life focuses on understanding microbiota-related mechanistic aspects of colorectal cancer prevention with diet. Specifically, I am exploring the effects of plant-based protein on gut physiology, metabolism, microbiota, and intestinal epithelia homeostasis. My methodological approaches include human intervention studies combined with in vitro models.

In my free time, I enjoy tending to my numerous houseplants, gardening, painting, and traveling to history rich sites or forests for berry picking.

Tuulia Pietilä's research profile

Finlay Sim, Doctoral Researcher

As a 2018 graduate of an MSc in Dietetics from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland, I joined the Molecular Nutrition group in Viikki in September 2023 as a doctoral researcher. Prior to this, I worked as a technical assistant in the Grain Technology group in Viikki in 2019 and 2022.

For my master’s thesis, I investigated the sourdough microflora of a Scottish heritage wheat variety and its sensory properties in artisan bread baking. The project propelled me into the world of fermentation, after which I worked as an artisan baker in sourdough bakeries in Scotland and Finland. Currently, my PhD project is set to investigate the impact of food processing techniques on human gut microbiota for the promotion of gut-friendly plant-based foods. Specifically, I plan to study the effects of tempeh and sourdough fermentations on the FODMAP content and protein bioavailability of staple Nordic crops and their implications for clinical populations.

When I’m not thinking about microbes, I’m either tinkering/touring on steel bicycles, attempting to be a jazz guitarist, or enjoying time with my family as a recent father. Sometimes I dabble into blogging –

Finlay Sim's research profile

Sini Kuosmanen, Doctoral Researcher

I earned my Master's degree at the University of Helsinki in 2019 majoring in Consumer Economics. My master's thesis dealt with private label groceries and food choice. I've always been interested in food and nutrition and studied Nutrition as one of my minors. I have a previous BA degree from English Philology.

Currently I am working on my doctoral dissertation, in which I explore how to advance more plant-based and sustainable diets from the consumer perspective.

In my free time I enjoy long-distance running and run-cations in different destinations, yoga, knitting and reading.

Sini Kuosmanen's research profile

Sari Bäck, Project Planner, Researcher

I am a project planner and a nutrition researcher working at the Department of Food and Nutrition, University of Helsinki. I am sharing my working hours between implementation of projects and research. My research has been focusing on food consumption and intake of nutrients in relation to human health and sustainability. I wish to be able to bring some of our research findings to public awareness and have them utilized to advance human and planetary wellbeing.

Sari Bäck's research profile

Anu Heiman-Lindh, Laboratory Technician

I came to work in the Department of Food and Nutrition at the University of Helsinki in 2007. Before that, I had gained experience in the development of pharmaceutical and antibiotic substances, making animal vaccines and carrying out viral serological tests, as well as utilising histological methods in a pathology laboratory. I have also worked in a project developing an anti-cancer drug, in which my task was to prepare and analyse nanoparticles.

Over the years, I have been involved in various research projects, where I have conducted development of methods, testing and validation related to liquid chromatography, spectrophotometry and enzymatic methods. My current duties include managing the laboratory, supporting the use of analytical devices, and actively helping the research group members to carry out their research, for example histological analyses. I also place orders, check invoices as well as guide students and trainess during the laboratory courses.

Outside the lab, I enjoy spending time with my family. I like gardening and enjoy sailing as well.

Anu Heiman-Lindh's profile

Past group members

Essi Päivärinta (in memoriam)

Göker Gürbüz