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Spring 1999

Gene Hunter
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It was a difficult decision for Peltonen to leave Finland, where she held one of the country's most prestigious scientific posts as chair of molecular genetics at the National Public Health Institute. "I was very happy in Finland," she says. "I didn't suffer for lack of funds." But the opportunity to shape the future of genetic research at a university like UCLA is what enticed her.

"It was the challenge of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a brand-new department, a brand-new building and the excellent facilities in the Gonda Center," she says. "The faculty is very good in showing that they care. There is this genuine sense that one's work would fly here. I think there are many wonderful people."

As a condition of her agreement to come to UCLA, Peltonen arranged for a dozen Finnish colleagues - some of whom have worked with her for more than a decade - to join her as part of an exchange program to train the next generation of Finnish scientists. "These geneticists in Finland were really the key technical people," she says. "I thought if they could bear with me for a couple of years on this side of the ocean, we really could get a quick start." Peltonen and her husband, Aarno Palotie, a professor of pathology at UCLA, also will return to Finland for two months every summer to keep up their ties to Finnish researchers and clinicians.

In the 20 years that she has been studying genetic defects, Peltonen has identified no fewer than 18 genes related to such common disorders as multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia as well as more obscure diseases like AGT, a rare and horrific brain disorder found only among children in Finland. Energetic and focused, she completed most of that research over the last decade. Last year, Peltonen scored another triumph when she localized the gene for familial combined hyperlipidemia, or FCHL, in a group of Finnish families. The condition leads to the early onset of coronary-artery disease, which remains one of the leading causes of death in the industrialized world.

Amazingly, Peltonen's findings on FCHL coincided with a study by UCLA geneticist Jake Lusis, who localized the same gene using a mouse model. The two scientists, who only learned of each other's research when each published a paper in the same issue of Nature Genetics, are now working together in the hope of more quickly identifying the gene. It is just such collaborations that Peltonen intends to foster at UCLA. Around UCLA, there is the palpable, but unexpressed, hope that Peltonen will do for genetics what Nobel Laureate Louis Ignarro and others have done for their fields: put the Westwood campus on the scientific map.

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