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Human Brain Disease Modelling (Lehtonen lab)´s Profile image

Human Brain Disease Modelling (Lehtonen lab)

Research group
01.01.2021 -
A.I. Virtanen Institute for Molecular Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences



Our research group aims to develop more physiologically relevant human-based models for studies of neurological diseases’ cellular and molecular mechanisms and the prediction of drug transport into the brain. We utilize patient-derived brain cells in 2D and 3D culture systems, including organoids, to more accurately mimic the diseased brain’s pathological conditions. We are especially interested in the glial non-cell-autonomous mechanisms and their contribution to neurodegeneration. We use breakthrough single-cell and imaging technologies combined with cutting-edge models to reveal the mechanisms and identify key therapeutic targets and pathways responsible for pathological glial phenotype. For drug transport studies, we employ custom-designed chips by Finnadvance. The system uses microfluidics and 3D cell culture and simulate thus the in vivo microenvironment with blood flow. Apart from using this model for testing novel drugs, we are also interested in using these models to uncover the molecular and transport mechanisms that regulate BBB permeability in physiological and pathological conditions.



  • Šárka Lehtonen, Ph.D. in Pharmacology​ – I am a highly motivated, results-driven senior researcher and group leader who has over 20-years of experience in in vitro and in vivo pharmacology and over 10-years of experience in stem cell technology. I am very committed to exceeding goals and working with the team to develop novel human models for neurological diseases and drug development studies.

    Katrina Räty (Albert), Ph.D. in Pharmacology – I have expertise in models of Parkinson’s disease, with a focus on the main pathological protein: alpha-synuclein. I completed my PhD at the University of Helsinki and then went to University of Cambridge to improve my knowledge of alpha-synuclein. Now I am back in Finland and starting my own project in the Lehtonen lab related to microglia and alpha-synuclein. My main interest is in making better preclinical models to find new treatments for disease. When I’m not thinking about alpha-synuclein you can find me trying new beers and brewing my own, or then attending concerts (just kidding – I’m thinking about alpha-synuclein those times too).

    Tuuli-Maria Sonninen, M.Sc. in Molecular Medicine, PhD student – I am working  in the blood-brain barrier on a chip project.

    Jonna Niskanen, M.Sc. in Molecular Medicine, PhD student – I am intrigued by our immune system – the body’s first line of defense – and the intercellular communications within. My previous projects have all been connected to cellular communications in one way or another. In my current position, I can combine the cell signaling and immunology aspects. I study iPSC-derived microglia and astrocytes in PD to see how these highly reactive glial cells effect neuronal wellbeing.

    Sara Kälvälä, M.Sc. in Biomedicine – My research is focused on iPSC-derived midbrain organoids as a model system for PD. Next-generation human-based disease models could offer a more efficient and physiologically relevant alternative to animal models, bridging the gap between in vivo and in vitro. The brain is an immensely intricate organ with a vast variety of cell types functioning in perfect harmony – capturing a snapshot of that complexity in vitro is super exciting!​​ I completed my Master’s thesis in the Lehtonen lab and am thrilled to continue working with the group. Outside the lab, I enjoy creative activities like drawing, photography and sculpting. Also, a self-confessed podcast addict.

    Vili Hakosalo, M.Sc. in Genetics and Molecular Biology – I am a project researcher in the Human brain disease modelling group. I have graduated from the University of Helsinki in 2021. My BSc is from biotechnology. I am interested in finding molecular pathways and setting up models for neurodegenerative diseases. More detailed, I am working on establishing in vitro models for PD with bona fide Lewy bodies.

    Sanni Peltonen, M.Sc. in Biomedicine – I’m working on projects related to the blood-brain barrier and microglia. I’ve graduated at the beginning of 2022 from the University of Eastern Finland but have been working in the group since 2021 and before that made my master’s thesis in the group. Currently, I am concentrating on blood-brain barrier modelling and glial cells. For me, it is important to develop more accurate human in vitro models for disease studies and drug development and thus offer better alternatives for in vivo models.

    Valtteri Syvänen, M.Sc. in Pharmacy – I am currently working as a project researcher in the Human brain disease modelling group. When I finished my Master’s thesis in the Lehtonen lab it was clear to me that I want keep exploring the vast field of disease modelling. Neurodegenerative diseases have been a major interest of mine during my studies so it is exciting to continue as part of this group. I have experience in 3D and 2D culturing and at the moment my focus is on developing an in vitro gut-brain-axis model to study gut changes in Parkinson’s disease.

  • 2022

    • Lab “pikkujoulu” dinner at Kuzina
    • Valtteri Syvänen continues to work in our group as a project researcher from July
    • Katrina Räty received a grant from the YUFE Postdoctoral Programme
    • Eugenio Gallucio from Italy joined our group as an intern
    • Katrina Räty received the postdoctoral funding from the Finnish Cultural Foundation
    • Patryk Krupa from Poland joined our group as a research trainee to work with midbrain organoids
    • PhD student Tuuli-Maria Sonninen and PI Sarka Lehtonen received research grants from Päiviki and Sakari Sohlberg Foundation to model BBB with human iPSC-derived cells and to reveal metabolic profile of human microglia obtained from PD patients


    • Lab “pikkujoulu” in escape rooms and dinner at Blocco
    • PhD student Jonna Niskanen received a three and half years salaried position from DPMM starting from January 2022
    • Katrina Räty (Albert) joined our group after her postdoc in Spillantini group at the University of Cambridge
    • Valtteri Syvänen started his Master`s thesis project in our group
    • Sanni Peltonen and Sara Kälvälä joined our group as research assistants
    • Group retreat in Puijo Disc Golf Park in June
    • Vili Hakosalo joined our group as a project researcher in May
    • Jonna Niskanen started as an early-stage researcher in January


    • Sarka Lehtonen received a three years Senior research fellowship from Sigrid Juselius Foundation in December
    • PhD student Tuuli-Maria Sonninen was granted a three years position from the Doctoral Programme of Molecular Medicine in September
    • Sarka Lehtonen obtained a three years research grant from Janne and Aatos Erkko Foundation in September
    • Sarka Lehtonen got a funding for young group leaders from Sigrid Juselius Foundation in March



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