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Cartographer in almost unknown terrain

You could describe her as a mapmaker. Or as an explorer. Someone who tries to find landmarks in a vast and largely unknown terrain. Someone who tries to identify genetic risk markers among 30 000 genes and 3 billion DNA-letters.
“The field of genetics is making huge advances. The technology that makes it possible to do really extensive genetic mappings gets more and more advanced and we do thing today that were impossible only a few years ago,” says Valeriya Lyssenko.

The landmarks she has pin-pointed on the genetic map have been acknowledged by the scientific community. Today she presents some of her most important findings at the ongoing international diabetes conference in Vienna. She does so as the winner of the “Rising Star” title; a young successful scientist heading for even bigger achievements.

Valeriya Lyssenko is a physician, endocrinologist and already, or very soon to be, established among the international top scientists. Within a few years she has rapidly published articles in scientific journals such as New England Journal of Medicine, Science, Nature Genetics, Diabetologia, Diabetes, Diabetes Care, Journal of Clinical Investigation and several others. She is 35 years old. Judging from everything, clearly a “rising star” on the scientific sky.

When asked why she chose to work as a scientist Valeriya Lyssenko answers by citing Max Perutz, the 1962 Nobel prize winner in chemistry, who apologized in his Nobel lecture for presenting such unfinished results.’”That is exactly how it is. New discoveries just raise new questions,” says Valeriya Lyssenko and seems very pleased about it.

So, how much does one need to work, how many hours are underlie her success? “I don’t know. Sure, it is a lot of work and a lot of travelling. But I don’t count like that,” she replies. 
Eight years ago Valeriya Lyssenko c
ame to Lund Diabetes Centre in Malmö. She came from Kiev in Ukraine and had just finished her PhD thesis. “When I was a PhD student in Kiev I wanted to do research on type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome and to see whether immunological disturbances plays any role in this. A lot of people were skeptical to my angle and there was very little research done on this area,” says Valeria Lyssenko and continues by telling that the only scientific articles she could find on the subject were written by the LUDC-researchers Leif Groop and Marju Orho-Melander. “Then I heard Leif  lecture at a meeting in Kiev. He talked enthusiastically about exactly the things I wanted to study. After the lecture we talked and he invited me to come and do research here. I was 25, so of course I was both proud and flattered,” Valeriya Lyssenko says but tells that it was not easy to move. “No, my family is in Ukraine and I didn’t know any Swedish, but because of the research focus of LUDC and the opportunities that are available here I never really hesitated.” “My mother cried and my father encouraged me. Today they are both proud,” she adds.

Is there any scientific study she is especially proud of? “Oh, it is hard to choose,” she answers hesitantly. “No, I think I am equally happy about all new studies.”

When new genetic discoveries from LUDC are published Valeriya Lyssenko’s name is usually found on the list of authors. Often as the first author, which as a rule means she did the main part of the work.

It is most often her and her group’s work that is behind the finding of a new interesting genetic variant; a letter combination that marks an increased risk for type 2 diabetes or a new, unexpected connection with the disease, like the relationship between the sleep hormone melatonin and diabetes.

The next step is to find out why a specific letter combination from the genetic alphabet increases the risk.

“Today we know approximately 20 risk variants for type 2 diabetes and we know that many of them make the body unable to respond to the increased demands on insulin secretion caused by, for example, obesity.”

“The aim of the research is to understand what type of disease type 2 diabetes is. If we do, it will open up new avenues for more elegant pharmaceuticals that attack the cause of the disease, not just the symptoms. Another goal is to be able to make a diagnosis and start treatment earlier, before the body gets permanently damaged,” says Valeriya Lyssenko and continues: “I think it is important that we, as scientists, don’t forget the individual patients; that it is them we work for.”

In moving to Sweden Valeriya Lyssenko gave up seeing patients as a doctor. But there are plans to resume it.

“Perhaps I will get an exemption to work as a physician in Sweden next year. It would be nice” she says. “But I want to combine clinical work with research. Absolutely not quit the research.”

Valeriya Lyssenko’s parents thought that at least one of their children should be a doctor. “My brother can’t stand blood so it had to be me and I didn’t mind. Biology and chemistry were my favorite subjects in school, I found them easy. I guess that is why research appeals to me,” she says.

When asked what her work and life will be like in ten years she replies:
“I think we will make more precise diagnoses thanks to genetic knowledge and that we will know from the start what treatment will work best and how big the risk of complications is. I also think I will participate actively in this as a doctor seeing patients. Perhaps I will also have had time to become a professor,” she says and laughs.

What is then the price for the long work hours? And for success?

“I think my work is interesting and fun but I try to make time for other things too. Like dancing Tango and reading, both scientific literature, novels and detective stories. You know, I don’t have time to experience a lot myself, so I have to read about others who do,” says Valeriya Lyssenko.

But being appointed “Rising Star” by the European Association for the Study of Diabetes or discovering something completely new, something no one knew before, and publishing in the most prestigious journals are not bad experiences either.

“No, that is not what I mean. I get appreciation and respect for what I do and it is worth a lot. The novels are something else.”

Text: Tord Ajanki/Emma Ahlqvist
Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/MalmöBild

Valeriya Lyssenko