Welcome to: Professor Mark Daly, newly appointed Director, FIMM

Professor Daly joined FIMM from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. Here he discusses his research and the reasons he chose to move to Finland from the USA

Professor Mark Daly. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro

Could you describe your research in a nutshell?

In a nutshell, I’m a human geneticist with a background in mathematics and statistics. My research primarily focuses on discovering the genes and genetic variants that are responsible for increasing the risk of common human diseases. Through my research, I aim to build a better understanding of the causal molecular basis of disease. This is important, as without this understanding we can’t develop very effective prevention or treatment strategies. 

Has this always been your research focus?

Yes, although in the first part of my career, we didn’t actually have the tools to be able to find the genes involved in common complex diseases. A lot of my time was therefore spent on building up genome maps, like the HAPmap of variation, which came after the sequencing of the human genome. This groundwork would form part of the tools that would eventually allow us to locate the genes we were looking for. 

Over the last ten years, that initial work has resulted in, what is now referred to in human genetics, as the ‘genome-wide association era’. We have finally overcome the barrier of discovering genetic variants for common disease. The next big challenge is to understand what those genetic variants are actually doing, and what the molecular basis of disease is. Our research is evolving from simply trying to discover genetic variations, to now trying to understand what that genetic variation is telling us in terms of disease processes and patient outcomes. 

What are the biggest challenges your area of research faces, and how do you overcome them?

Some of the answers to that actually lies in the fact that I left Boston for Helsinki. A lot of the challenges we face with our research involve the lack of researcher access to data from large populations which also have an integrated medical system, with patient data that has been collected in a uniform way. 

The opportunities that exist in Finland to pursue the next steps in genetic research are currently impossible in both the USA, and in most other parts of the world. What we are now able to do in Finland is to show how research and healthcare data can work together in a responsible and productive way. This includes both learning about the biology of the disease, and also in returning information to the medical system that has the potential to improve disease treatment and prevention. 

We can learn how to do that here in Finland, and then demonstrate how it can work in a responsible way to the rest of the world. I hope that one day we can take this way of working back to the USA. People tend to think of the worst-case scenarios when patient data is involved and forget about the very positive things that can happen. I think the Nordic countries can definitely lead the way in showing how this can be done properly.

What unsolved question would you most like to answer (in terms of your research)?

I would really like to see more routine development of therapeutic hypotheses and preventative tools, based on the genetic variations of disease that we are able to discover. There’s not a well-worn path of how to do this, so most of all I would like our research to lead the way here. 

What are your hopes and ambitions for FIMM in the future, and what do you hope to achieve in your role as Director?

From a research standpoint, I would like to see all of our outstanding research areas continue to work towards clinical relevance. For example, I would like to see further development of the partnerships between our cancer groups at FIMM and the Helsinki University Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Centre.

I also hope that the realisation of how genetic information and the information we are able to obtain from drug screening and imaging can eventually be used to make healthcare decisions, and therefore be of advantage to the population. To achieve this, we will need to grow a bit and also bring in more new and energetic researchers to help drive this forward. 

How will your own research evolve whilst at FIMM?

In terms of my own research, a lot is already embedded in the FinnGen project - over the past three or so years, Aarno Palotie and I have been working to design and launch the project. A lot of my work has therefore involved close collaboration between our groups back in Boston, at the Broad Institute at Harvard. 

Furthermore, the analysis team of the FinnGen project is actually mostly based at the Broad Institute, which has really helped to strengthen the links between the two centres. I will also maintain my group in Boston, and we will continue to bring group and lab members back and forth between Boston and Helsinki. I think this additional collaboration outside of the Nordics is really positive for both Finland and for the Nordic EMBL Partnership. 

Do you see the potential for more research collaborations within the Nordic EMBL Partnership?

Certainly. We’re all very enthusiastic and I’m sure there are many opportunities that will come to light once we start to share research ideas more widely, and there is definitely more we could do here. However, I realise that it’s much easier to collaborate with a group that’s based in the same city, rather than a plane ride away, so we’ll have to work on how to help make this happen. 

I’ve personally already had some rich collaborations with researchers at Aarhus University, on a project called iPSYCH, which was a landmark genetic study in autism, and ADHD and psychiatric illness. I hope that this initial collaboration might also help us to build some more collaborative links with DANDRITE, which is of course also based at Aarhus University. I’m sure that if we take the time to explore and drive these opportunities forwards, then activities between the Nordic nodes will be very productive. 

What advantages and possibilities do you feel that being a part of the wider EMBL universe can bring for FIMM?

I think we can definitely benefit more than we have perhaps in the past. The fact that we are all EMBL-linked brings substantial credibility, especially if we can build more collaborative research activity. The affiliation naturally puts our research into a wider European setting, rather than just a Nordic one. We should also look to utilise our Nordic EMBL affiliation to reach out to the wider EMBL network, and to use this to develop ideas that could help advance the research in our field quite significantly. 

What are you most enjoying about living in Finland so far?

It’s a great place to be. Coming from the USA, Finland is a much quieter and more logical place. The quality of life here is wonderful; you feel like you actually have time to think and we’re very much enjoying the lifestyle so far…although the lack of sunlight in December is taking some time to get used to!

Further information

Mark Daly: www.broadinstitute.org/bios/mark-daly

FIMM: www.fimm.fi

HiLIFE: www.helsinki.fi/hilife

University of Helsinki: www.helsinki.fi/en