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Hani El-Nezami.

Audience at the 20th anniversary seminar of the Master's Degree Programme in Toxicology, Hani El-Nezami in the foreground on the left.

From chemical risks to solutions – 20 years of degree education in toxicology

In the future, environmental health hazards may also be combated with microbial therapy, said Professor Hani El-Nezami at the 20th anniversary seminar of the Master's Degree Programme in Toxicology.

The international Master’s Degree Programme in Toxicology at the University of Eastern Finland is the only graduate programme in the field in Finland. Toxicology expertise is utilised in chemical risk assessment.

“Education and research in toxicology are needed to guarantee the overall safety of people and the environment. The need for toxicological expertise will be emphasised in the future,” said the director of the programme Jaana Rysä, Professor of Drug Toxicology, at the anniversary seminar organised on 4 May.

In recent years, there have been more and more applicants for the Master’s degree programme, and 85 percent of the graduates are employed in the field within three months of graduation.

Jussi Kukkonen, Professor of Ecotoxicology, raised in his presentation thoughts on the importance and future of research. As an example, he used a recently published study that looked at 24.5 million articles from 1945 to 2010. According to the results, research has become fragmented into smaller and smaller published units. The number of extensive, disruptive articles has decreased. According to Kukkonen, a change in direction requires investments in longer-term research projects as well as multidisciplinary or even interdisciplinary cooperation.

Eeva Punta, founder of the environmental consultancy company Linnunmaa and presently Bioeconomy Lead at Sweco, is a member of the programme’s steering group. She looked at the importance of toxicology from an industrial perspective and highlighted with practical examples how a lack of toxicological understanding can cause significant delays and additional costs in the planning of industrial projects.

Learning continues in working life

Some alumni of the programme shared their career stories in the seminar. “The programme was demanding and challenging but also rewarding and stimulating,” said Erik Peltomaa, who graduated in 2012.

“The toxicology studies provided me with useful knowledge and a new way of thinking and understanding the concepts of hazard and risk. As generally in science, toxicology is a field of continuous learning.”

Since graduating from the programme, Peltomaa has worked as Senior Researcher at the Finnish Medicines Agency. “I have been able to apply what I learnt during my toxicology studies in risk assessment work in supervision and regulation.”

Selma Mahiout, who graduated from the programme in 2011, said that the versatile education gave an excellent basis for continuous learning in working life. Mahiout works as Senior Specialist at the Finnish Institute for Occupational Health. In addition to the research and expert tasks related to chemical risk assessment, she supervises the occupational toxicology group.

“The Finnish Society of Toxicology has accompanied me on my career path since my first year of study. It offers us toxicologists working all over Finland an excellent platform for knowledge transfer and networking, among other things,” Mahiout mentioned.

Muluneh Fashe, who also graduated in 2011, discussed how the programme served as a springboard for his research career. Currently, Fashe is Research Scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), USA.

Microbial therapy for liver diseases

The plenary lecture was given by Professor Hani El-Nezami from the Universities of Eastern Finland and Hong Kong. His presentation focused on microbial therapy developed by his research group that can modulate the development and progression of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a significant cause of cancer deaths globally. Risk factors for HCC include alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, viral hepatitis and environmental factors, such as exposure to foods contaminated with aflatoxin – a mould toxin.

The current treatment options for hepatocellular carcinoma are limited, so there is a need for new alternatives. “Microbial therapy may offer an alternative therapeutic approach for the prevention and treatment of liver diseases,” El-Nezami said.

His research group has previously shown, among other things, that a probiotic supplement can reduce the absorption of aflatoxin in the body. In a recent study, the microbial therapy developed and named PROHEP by the group prevented liver steatosis by inhibiting the production of triglycerides and cholesterol in the liver in mice fed with a high-fat diet. “The main mechanism of action was the modulation of gut microbiota and their metabolites.”

Professor Jarkko Ketolainen, Head of the School of Pharmacy, as well as Professor Emerita Kirsi Vähäkangas and alumna Emilia Kontio also gave presentations at the anniversary seminar. Greetings from the Faculty of Health Sciences were brought by Vice Dean, Professor Anna-Liisa Levonen.