Professor Alitalo received the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine 2014 for his pioneering research on how and when lymph and blood vessels grow, and how that knowledge could help us find interventions to treat cancer and other diseases.
Prof. Kari Alitalo was born in Kuopio (Finland) in 1952. As a young man, his ambition to advance medical practice made him decide against studying maths. He ended up studying medicine at the University of Helsinki, the same institution in which he obtained his Ph.D. in 1980.
After spending about five years in the west coast of the U.S., where he worked with famous scientists like Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus, he returned to Helsinki in 1986.
In 1993, Alitalo was named Academy Professor of Molecular Biology of Cancer by the University of Helsinki.
Since 2013, Alitalo has been Director of the Wihuri Research Institute, a private institute founded in 1944 to study vascular biology and diseases of vascular systems. He also leads a Centre of Excellence in translational cancer research at the University of Helsinki.
Alitalo ranks among the most-cited cancer and cell biology researchers in Europe. With more than 550 published papers to his name, he has been cited more than 55,000 times.
He is member of the Academy of Europe and the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, and foreign member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He has been awarded many prestigious prizes, including the Prix Leopold Griffuel (France), the Louis-Jeantet Prize for medicine (Switzerland) and the InBev-Baillet Latour Health Prize (Belgium).
The blood and lymphatic vascular systems are essential for circulating fluid, sources of energy, oxygen, antibodies and immune cells around the human body.
For 18 years, Professor Kari Alitalo has been at the forefront of research on how this crucial transport system is constructed and maintained in the healthy body and how it is affected by disease. He has also been among the leaders in using this new knowledge to find better treatments for cancer and vascular disease.
Alitalo is best known for his discovery of biomolecular mechanisms that promote and regulate the growth of lymphatic and blood vessels.
The importance of lymphatic vessels for fluid regulation and the immune system has been known for more than a century. Most of that time however, it was completely unclear how vessels knew where to grow, when or how medicines could be used to influence their behaviour. Such knowledge is vital for developing treatments for diseases of the vascular system itself, such as lymphoedema that results in abnormal accumulations of fluid in the body. It could also help greatly in tackling cancer, since tumour cells often use lymphatic vessels to travel to other organs.
Alitalo and his co-workers were the first to discover a molecular ‘switch’ that, if appropriately stimulated, induced epithelial tissue in skin to transform into lymphatic vessels. He subsequently discovered the growth factor that is key to this trigger. Since then four more switches and four more growth factors have been identified, and Alitalo was involved in three of those discoveries.
Thanks to Alitalo, this basic knowledge is currently being used very actively in the search for new medicines. Three molecular compounds are now in the early stages of implementation as drugs: one is to treat lymphoedema, another targets blood vessels in tumours that might inhibit their growth, and yet another could slow down cancer metastasis by blocking new growth of lymphatic vessels.
Taken together, Alitalo’s pioneering work has contributed impressively to what we now know about how our body builds and controls its vascular systems, and how one day we may be able to use that knowledge in treating many devastating diseases.