Stem Cells in Focus

Member Spotlight on Outi Hovatta, MD, PhD

  • 17 April, 2017
Hometown:
Helsinki, Finland

Current Residence:
Stockholm, Sweden

Graduate Degrees:
MD, PhD at University of Helsinki

Postgrad work:
Imperial College, London, UK

Current Position:
Professor, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
 

Editor’s note: Dr. Hovatta has been a member of the ISSCR Membership Committee since 2012.

What is the current focus of your research?

After working as an IVF gynecologist and scientist for many years – at first in Finland and then in Sweden – mainly focusing on cryo-preservation of gametes and ovarian and testicular tissues as fertility preservation options and maturing oocytes and ovarian follicles in vitro, I saw our unique possibilities in regenerative medicine. 

Every day we had supernumerary human embryos from donors who already had their children. From those extra embryos, we were among the first in Europe to start making human embryonic stem cell lines (hESC), and now we have more than 60 such lines. To get them into the clinic was my ambition from the very beginning. 

We managed to use human skin fibroblasts from the very beginning, and soon also from the use of fetal bovine serum. Then, we began to isolate the inner cell mass mechanically instead of using desired fetal bovine serum. In collaboration with Professor Karl Tryggvason at the Karolinska Institutet, we explored the natural niche in the extracellular matrix surrounding the cells in human embryos three days after in vitro fertilization. Karl and his group managed to produce these huge human proteins in human cells. These biologically active intact recombinant human laminins proved to allow outstanding culture conditions for derivation and propagation of hESC. We can now effectively work without feeder cells and without any animal-derived substances in the cultures.

Now my team and I at the Karolinska Institutet are working on xeno-free, feeder cell-free differentiation of retinal pigment epithelial cells from hESC, and their functional testing. We are preparing for a clinical trial in treating the dry form of macular degeneration that is the most common loss of vision in the Western world. We are focusing on the immunogenicity of hESC-differentiated cells and manners to avoid rejection. There are many other disorders I hope we can, in collaboration with many other groups, use in curing severe diseases.

What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?

I have had a desire to become a scientist since I was as a teenager. I would trek in the wild, often together with my father who was a professor at the Helsinki University of Technology, and I was fascinated by plants and birds. I desired to become a biologist, but my father heard from his friends that the research possibilities were better in the medical faculty, so I chose that field instead. I started my thesis work in reproductive medicine already as a medical student. 

Clinical in vitro fertilization was a natural way forward at the time when it became possible. That made it possible to initiate stem cell work from the supernumerary embryos in Stockholm later on.

How do you spend your free time?

I still go out to the forest as often as I can, now frequently accompanied by my husband or my grown children or my small grandchildren. I row on the lakes for long distances, run, and cross-country ski while thinking a lot at the same time. 

Nature photography is also one of my great interests. We have a cottage in Southern Finland next to a large nature park, and there we spend as much time as possible. But there are excellent opportunities also in the Southern suburban areas in Stockholm, close to the Karolinska University Hospital Huddinge campus where my laboratory is located.

What is one thing your peers would be surprised to learn about you?

That I can move 20-30 km (12.5-18.5 miles) a day in the wild, and during that time gain a lot of understanding for scientific problems through focused thinking. Together with my family members, we also visit 4,000-6,000 m (13,125-19,700 ft.) high mountain summits, utilizing ice and rock climbing skills.

What do you like most about living and working where you do?

I feel enthusiastic in finding new things, both in research and out in the wild, and listening to classical music. 

But my family, my husband, two scientist daughters, one singer, and an economist son, and all my grandchildren give great happiness to my life.

What do you gain from your membership with the ISSCR?

Continuous access to most recent stem cell research data.