ECO2023 NEWSLETTER: DAY THREE – Clinical Research – EASO-Novo Nordisk Foundation New Investigator Award: Sini Heinonen (Finland)

ECO2023 NEWSLETTER: DAY THREE – Clinical Research – EASO-Novo Nordisk Foundation New Investigator Award: Sini Heinonen (Finland)

Dr Sini Heinonen, MD and Postdoctoral Fellow at HUS (Helsinki University Hospital) in Finland, is being recognised for her pioneering research on the association between obesity and a significant reduction in the mitochondrial capacity of adipose tissue, which profoundly impacts metabolic health. Her current work investigates how weight loss through bariatric surgery can restore adipose tissue metabolism, a key discovery which can support developing new treatments for people with obesity.

With her work, Sini has advanced the understanding of adipose tissue metabolism, inflammation and browning, transcriptomics patterns in sub-types of obesity, sex-specific aspects and epigenetics of obesity.

Here we here more about Sini’s life and career.

Q: Congratulations Sini on this award. For those who don’t know you, tell us a bit about your early life and background that led to a career in obesity research?

A: I grew up in Tapiola, a garden city near Helsinki. I loved to study and learn and was very interested in sciences. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and geography opened new realms to me. Already then, I wanted to have a scientific profession in the future. During my free time I loved to read scientific books and to dance ballet. My passion to dance led me to acquire a professional qualification in dance and to pursue a career as a professional ballet dancer for 5 years in the Finnish National Opera Ballet and abroad. I still lead my own dance group and train daily. Simultaneously with dancing I studied physics, chemistry and mathematics in the University of Technology and was determined to start medical studies.

I met Professor Aila Rissanen from the Obesity Research Unit of University of Helsinki in the summer 2008 before my studies in the Medical Faculty of the University of Helsinki commenced and she enrolled me in her research group, under the supervision of thus Associate Professor Kirsi Pietiläinen. I applied and was accepted into the competitive MD/PhD programme in the Faculty of Medicine (Doctoral Programme in Biomedicine), which enabled me to do my medical studies and PhD in medicine simultaneously. This led me to my future path in obesity research.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in research, particularly focusing on obesity and its related issues?

A: I am inspired by the possibility of producing new knowledge that can help patients through understanding the mechanisms of a disease and through developing new treatments for it. Obesity is a complex disease, where new innovations are desperately needed. These innovations need vast and multidisclipinary expertise. I value working with the most intelligent researchers in their field and constantly learning from them.

Q: Can you recall any specific experiences or events during your academic or professional journey that sparked your interest in obesity research?

A: I met the former head of our research unit, Professor Aila Rissanen, in the summer of 2008 in the garden of a villa. I had just started to study in the Medical Faculty of Helsinki University. Sonn after, she enrolled me to work for her Obesity Research Unit. Along with my medical studies I started as a research assistant helping to collect adipose and muscle tissue samples from identical twins discordant for obesity and processing them further to RNA, DNA and adipocytes. I had never done biomedical wet lab but was given a lot of responsibility and trust from the start. My Professor Kirsi Pietiläinen was an extremely enthusiastic supervisor, and she inspired me to start a PhD project. The more I studied obesity, the more I grew interested in it and the complex nature of the problems it is associated with. If I had never had that chance encounter with the professor in the garden, all of this may not have happened.

Q: How do you see your work having an impact on public health?

A: The development of an affordable and accessible weight loss strategy will have significant impact on the health of patients, societal well-being, work efficacy and public and personal economy. Our research will hopefully make the public and policymakers understand obesity as a disease, which is treatable, and which needs funding to be treated.

The goal of our project is to find molecules mediating the beneficial effects of surgery. These will be tested as treatments leading to permanent weight loss. We try to provide future means to treat obesity through enhancing adipose tissue mitochondrial function. These innovations would facilitate the development of new medicines and new practice strategies in healthcare and thus reduce the costs and the health burden of the disease.