Dr. Leena Peltonen, an unusually prolific genetics researcher whose team discovered mutated genes responsible for 15 inherited diseases and who established the department of human genetics at UCLA, died of cancer March 11 at her home in Finland. She was 57.
Her "contribution to understanding the genetics of human disease has been a lifelong commitment and is simply outstanding," said Allan Bradley, director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in England, where Peltonen ended her career.
According to the Academy of Finland, which awarded her the honorary title of Academician of Science in October 2009: "Her team diagnosed genetic mutations associated with dyslipidemias [abnormal cholesterol levels], lactose intolerance, MS disease, schizophrenia, obesity and heart diseases. The team also established how these mutations mechanically lead to the actual onset of disease. Their efforts have paved the way to new diagnostic tests and to screening for disease carriers."
In her 32-year career, she wrote more than 520 original research articles and 70 reviews, specializing in using genetically isolated populations to identify genes that predispose to various diseases. She also mentored more than 70 doctoral candidates. She received several international prizes. On International Women's Day 2010, the Monday before her death, Finland issued a postage stamp commemorating her achievements.
Leena Paivi Peltonen was born June 16, 1952, in Helsinki. She received her medical degree in 1976 and a doctorate in genetics in 1978, both from the University of Oulu. After postdoctoral research at Rutgers Medical School in New Jersey, she returned to Finland to join the National Public Health Institute.
In 1998, she came to Los Angeles to establish the human genetics unit at UCLA, luring several of her colleagues from Finland to join her. The department is now widely recognized for its research contributions.
After four years, she returned to Finland again to join the University of Helsinki and the National Public Health Institute. She was also a visiting professor at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and in 2007 also assumed the role of head of human genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.
Peltonen is survived by her husband, geneticist Aarno Veikko Palotie; a daughter, Laura Maria Aarnontytär; and a son, Kristian Veikko Aarnonpoika.