Hypertension Specialist Teemu Niiranen Studies World’s Leading Cause of Disease Burden
Teemu Niiranen has dedicated most of his adult life to studying high blood pressure. His work with hypertension has led to several research projects and changed international clinical guidelines. Turku Collegium for Science and Medicine at the University of Turku has made it possible for Niiranen to establish his own research group.
Globally, high blood pressure causes the highest number of years lost due to ill-health and deterioration of the quality of life especially at old age. Despite his relatively young age, Teemu Niiranen has studied hypertension already for 15 years. Niiranen completed his doctorate in 2008 at the Internal Medicine of the University of Turku and the topic of his dissertation was measuring blood pressure at home.
– In the early 2000s, blood pressure was still always measured at the doctor’s office. My dissertation showed that blood pressure measured at home predicts cardiovascular diseases better than when it was measured at a clinic, says Niiranen.
Together with other studies on hypertension, Niiranen’s dissertation changed international clinical guidelines. Hypertension diagnosis is now based on measurements at home.
New Expertise from Abroad and a Stack of Publications
The praised dissertation marks the beginning of Niiranen's promising researcher career. In 2012, he specialised in internal medicine at Turku University Hospital and after that he worked as a medical specialist at the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL.
– At the same time, I supervised five doctoral candidates at the University of Turku. Then, I received an email from the United States informing me that the Framingham Heart Study is looking for a postdoc researcher.
The Framingham Heart Study began in 1948 and is one of the oldest and most famous longitudinal medical studies in the world. The significance of Framingham is well illustrated by the fact that the term risk factor used in epidemiological studies and more extensively in the spoken language originates from the study.
Niiranen spent altogether two years in Framingham gaining expertise on cardiovascular disease epidemiology and omics. Omics refer to technologies where thousands of molecules or genetic variants are extracted from biological samples, which can be used for gaining a better understanding of, for example, how bodily functions are disturbed by different diseases.
– Epidemiology is looking for factors related to health and nowadays researchers utilise genome and metabolome data. In other words, my research is more and more focused on how people’s genes and metabolism affect the occurrence of hypertension.
The work with genomes and metabolomes has paid off. In May 2019, the Research Council for Biosciences, Health and the Environment of the Academy of Finland granted the HyperOme consortium led by Niiranen nearly €600,000 in funding.
– Funders appreciate research periods abroad. In addition to networking and new skills, I was able to publish high-level research articles and broke my impact factor records with a bang, says Niiranen.
The joint academy project with the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL will systematically map the microbial derived metabolites in human circulation. In addition, the researchers will study the role of the microbiome and the microbial derived metabolites and their genetic interactions in the pathobiology of hypertension in large-scale population cohorts.
These kind of studies differ significantly from traditional medical research. The large data sets require managing vast amounts of information. According to Niiranen, doctors have had to learn how to code as well.
– In my field, it is a stellar combination if you have a background both in medicine and mathematics. At the moment, my research group is in close collaboration with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.
“Top level medical research is conducted at the University of Turku”
The busy researcher tells that at the moment he has as many as four employers. Niiranen works mainly as a collegium researcher at Turku Collegium for Science and Medicine.
– Above all else, it has enabled me to establish my own research group. If I wanted, I could dedicate 100 percent of my time to research. It’s not self-evident that even merited researchers can fully focus on their own research, says Niiranen.
A part of his working hours is spent in clinical work, 20 percent in his expert position at the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL, and a smaller part at the University of Helsinki, where he coordinates the work of the Cardiometabolic Clinical Expert Group of the FinnGen study.
The seasoned researcher says that chance has had a great role in his career. Nevertheless, he has been on a steady course towards his home university.
– Top level medical research is conducted at the University of Turku. I went to school in Turku and got my scientific training here so returning felt natural.
Niiranen felt it important that he could continue teaching and doing clinical work alongside research, and commends the University that he has been able to organise his work so flexibly.
– It’s a bit of a cliché to say this but teaching is actually educational and supervising dissertations is a great way to keep up with the latest research. The Finnish society has paid a great amount of money for my excellent medical training and in my opinion it would be foolish to waste this expertise. It can also be valuable for a researcher to see the theories in practice.
Text: Heikki Kettunen
Photos: Hanna Oksanen
Translation: Mari Ratia