When the UCLA Medical School created the Department of Human Genetics two years ago, a crucial element in securing the success of the new department was to recruit one of the world's foremost genetic scientists to head it.

To that end, the university brought in Leena Peltonen, a native of Finland and formerly professor of medical genetics at the University of Helsinki and professor of molecular biology at Finland's National Public Health Institute.

Peltonen has published 308 scientific reports and 95 reviews and chapters, and she serves on the editorial boards of a number of medical journals. Her research has focused on the genetic underpinnings of human disease, and she has localized genes associated with schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.

As chair of the department, Peltonen will lead UCLA's efforts to "translate" the recently compiled human genetic code into knowledge that will bring us closer to understanding the causes of human diseases. This effort will combine the resources of computer science, statistics, mathematics, biology and genetics. And obviously, the commercial potential of drugs and therapies coming out of such research is phenomenal.


With what purpose in mind was the Department of Human Genetics created at UCLA?


UCLA missed the first wave of human genetics and it was not one of the key players when the genome was read through. There were lots of genetic researchers, but the focus was not on human genetics, and that's what we've been trying to build up. This is a very disease-oriented department and the research programs focus on the identification of the genes behind human diseases.


Are there any specific diseases or types of diseases that the department concentrates on?


The research is either targeted to what we call trivial or simple genetic diseases, meaning that there is one disease gene and mistakes in that particular gene always cause the disease. However, an increasing number of programs are also targeted at what we call more complex diseases, and those are the common diseases everybody is interested in, like schizophrenia or multiple sclerosis. More and more genetic research is targeted to those common diseases and they are more challenging because they involve a spectrum of genes, and so we have to identify multiple genes and multiple different variants of those genes.


Given that the program is only two years old, what will it take to move to the forefront of human genetic research?


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