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Spring 1999

Gene Hunter
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History enhanced the field of genetics in Finland in another fascinating way. In 1640, under orders of the Swedish king, the Lutheran Church of Finland began collecting detailed information on its citizens as a way to tax the population. As a result, Finland has fantastic medical records on every individual going back more than three centuries, giving scientists a remarkable tool to trace familial diseases. "Finns are a little like bacteria," says Peltonen with a smile. "They are very easy targets to study genetically. In complex diseases, like schizophrenia or multiple sclerosis, you can trust that since they had common ancestors all current living individuals share some common genes predisposing them to these complex diseases."

Peltonen's desire to pursue medicine was fired as a child growing up in Oulu, a town of just a few thousand people near the Arctic Circle, where her father was an economics professor and her mother a high school teacher. When she was 9, her younger brother developed a severe form of diabetes; he eventually died at age 32. "I think that affected my thinking, that doctors are miracle-makers," she says.

Peltonen went on to the University of Oulu, earning her undergraduate degree as well as her M.D./Ph.D., but switched her focus to research when she began studying under an inspirational scientist who worked in inherited diseases of collagen. It was a wise choice in other ways, too. Peltonen met her husband, a pathologist and expert in DNA diagnostic techniques, in the laboratory there, and the two have collaborated ever since. In 1978, Peltonen and Palotie moved to the United States, completing postdoctoral work at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was the beginning of the revolution in molecular biology, and that year, the first two genes were cloned. Peltonen was captivated, and quickly turned her attention to genetic research. "It became very obvious that if you want to understand disease, you must understand genes," she says.

In 1984, Peltonen and her husband returned to Finland and joined the medical faculty at the University of Helsinki. By now, Peltonen was gaining a reputation in genetics, especially in the area of devastating children's brain disorders. She painstakingly labored to identify the gene that caused a particularly horrific disease among children who were bornhealthy and normal but who progressively deteriorated until they were profoundly retarded.

In 1986, when she was 35, Peltonen's career took a momentous turn when she was recruited to head the newly created molecular genetics unit of the National Public Health Institute of Finland, the country's most distinguished health and research organization. With the country's rich population histories and medical database at her fingertips, Peltonen decided to concentrate on diseases that, because of the country's genetic isolation, were peculiar to the Finnish population and would be easier to trace. And she had another powerful tool at her disposal: a system of free, high-quality health care in which patients trust their doctors and are highly willing to participate in medical research.

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