Curious about the interaction between the immune system and microbiota
When our immune system reacts to something in our environment, both our own bacterial flora as well as environmental microbiota play an important role. Harri Alenius is studying this interaction between the immune system and different microbiota – systems of microorganisms.
Harri Alenius is investigating at how substances and microorga-nisms in the environment affect people’s immune system and health. He is particularly interested in how the ecosystem of microorganisms, so-called microbiota, in the environment and people interact with each other, and how they affect the immune system.
“To understand how bacterial flora on our skin, for example, functions and interacts with the environment, we need to study the entire system, not just individual microbial species. Now, we have the technology that allows us to do this,” he says.
Alenius’ research is based in part on human cohorts with informative contrasts.
“For example, we have looked at people in Finnish or Russian Karelia. Geographically they are neighbours, but the difference in living standards is very large. This enables us to study how different bacterial flora affect the incidence of allergies, for example.”
Alenius doesn’t want just to identify statistical relationships, but he wants to go further and investigate the underlying mecha-nisms. His research therefore combines human cohorts and clinical studies with experiments on cell lines and animal models. Moreover, as Vice Coordinator for the EU project Nano-solutions, Harri Alenius has directed much of his research at health risks caused by nanoparticles.
“In Nanosolutions we have investigated which properties of nanoparticles determine how harmful they are to health. Being able to make these types of predictions before the introduction of new materials will become increasingly important. We have shown that this system works on a small scale.”
Professor of Molecular Toxicology at the Institute of Environmental Medicin
Harri Alenius was born in 1966 in Tammerfors, Finland, and studied Cellular and Molecular Biology at Jyväskylä University, graduating in 1995. He was awarded his PhD by Tammerfors University in 1997. From 1990–1996 he conducted research at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare and from 1996–2016 at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, where he was appointed Professor in 2005.
Alenius was a postdoc at Harvard Medical School from 1998–2000 and has been a guest or visiting professor at several universities, including Zhejiang University in China in 2015. Since 2016 he has led a research group at Helsingfors University. On 1 August 2016, Harri Alenius was appointed Professor of Molecular Toxicology at Karolinska institutet.
Text: Anders Nilsson, translated from Swedish, first published in “From Cell to Society” 2017.