Introducing CoEBoC Group Leaders - Katriina Aalto-Setälä is in the heart of research

Katriina Aalto-Setälä is a cardiologist and a professor of physiology. She is also the head of Heart Group, a research group in CoEBoC, which focuses on modeling heart and liver tissue using induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology. Although passionate about her work, she also enjoys spending time with her family including her dog, a 3-year-old labrador retriever Otso.

Authors: Siiri Suominen, Promise Emeh, Miina Björninen
Photo: Silja Viitala

Combining cardiology and molecular genet

“Everything started with embryonic stem cells,” Aalto-Setälä begins. Being a cardiologist, she found herself intrigued by the cardiac application prospects using stem cells. However, she recalls being too optimistic about them and their possible clinical applications during the first few years. To find new challenges for her studies, she spent for a year at the Galdstone Institute and was fortunate to meet Professor, Nobelist Shinya Yamanaka and work in his lab at the time when the whole iPSC technology was being invented.  “If it wasn’t for the discovery of iPSCs, I would have probably stopped working with stem cells altogether”, she continues.

As a molecular geneticist, Aalto-Setälä has been studying hereditary diseases since the mid-80s. In the Heart Group, she can combine all her know-how from molecular genetics to stem cells and to cardiology as well as bring together research and her patients. Nowadays, the research in Heart Group focuses on both heart and liver, the latter due to its connection to atherosclerosis and heart ischemia. Patient-specific iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes and hepatocyte-like cells create the center for the group’s research.

Working together

Of course, research does not happen without the researchers themselves. Heart Group has employees with various backgrounds, from graduate students to post-doc researchers, not forgetting the technicians. “The researcher, who has worked with me the longest, started in the group already in 2005!”, Aalto-Setälä rejoices. She mentions being very satisfied with her group and how it works right now. She has gotten the feeling of the group members sincerely helping others when needed.

From living in the lab to sailing the seas

“When I started my career, research was my life. Of course, it was easy for me back then: I wasn’t married, I had no children or pets, so I basically lived in the lab”, Aalto-Setälä talks about the beginning of her research life. Nowadays she greatly enjoys her free time, which often includes travelling, sailing or going to the theater or opera.

Spending time outdoors, whether its walking with the dog or sailing, is one of Aalto-Setälä’s favourite ways to spend her free time.

Aalto-Setälä’s is also a keen book reader, although nowadays she reads mostly during her holidays. The tight schedule of a group leader and back-to-back meetings on weekdays usually make her too tired to read books during the week. Luckily, the arrival of audio books has helped her in this regard. She has become a huge fan of audiobooks, effortlessly completing a book per week “I always listen to them while walking my dog and cycling to and from work”, she adds.

“Even though the research world is tough, it’s definitely worth it if you have the passion for research”, Aalto-Setälä affirms.


Find more info about Aalto-Setälä’s research group in here.