Researcher profile: Ulf Pettersson

From racial biology to genomic medicine

Sixty years after the Swedish Institute for Racial Biology changed its name and became part of Uppsala University, Ulf Pettersson, Post-Retirement Professor of Medical Genetics, can look back on the long journey from dubious historical ballast to scientific flagship.

On New Year’s Eve 2018 one of Uppsala University’s longest and most important research careers will come to an end, but first Pettersson, Post-Retirement Professor of Medical Genetics, will ascend the podium of Uppsala University Hospital to receive the Olof Rudbeck Prize, a mark of honour he is being awarded for his many years of ground-breaking work in virus and human genetic research.
“At the age of 76, I thought that the time for awards was past, so, for me, receiving this recognition from the Upsala Medical Society is an extremely valuable acknowledgement that health care has benefited from my achievements as a researcher. This is a prize that I will value highly when I end my employment this winter and am free to use the years still left to me.”

In conjunction with the Prize Ceremony Pettersson will hold a lecture on Medical genetics – from racial biology to genomic medicine, a title which provides a good summary of what many have come to view as perhaps Pettersson’s most important work for a scientific field long burdened by dubious historical baggage.
“I was offered the Professorship in Medical Genetics despite my background as a virologist, a controversial choice for what was then a relatively weak higher education institution with few members of staff. But we used successful recruitments to build an internationally effective environment that was an important voice in the conversation about the social consequences of genetics and that contributed, above all, to the scientific demolition of arguments about human races, so I can certainly say that I have never regretted my choice.

On the autumn day in 1962 when Pettersson got off the train from Linköping to start his academic journey, it was, however, wholly without having the then Department of Medical Genetics in his sights; this was an environment that only four years earlier had replaced the Swedish Institute for Racial Biology, Herman Lundborg’s creation with the mandate of finding a scientific basis for racial hygiene measures.
“I was firmly convinced that I was going to be a psychiatrist. To acquire further qualifications I started doing research, and I got so fascinated that I had time to both do my doctorate and be appointed a docent in molecular biology before receiving my licence to practice medicine.”
Shortly afterwards Pettersson was offered a postdoc position in the US at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory under the leadership of the legendary James Watson, winner of a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule.

There Pettersson started close cooperation with Richard J. Roberts and Phillip Sharp, and together they studied the structure of the genes of the adenovirus, a DNA virus, that causes infections in humans.
While Roberts and Sharp went on to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 for their findings, Pettersson returned to Sweden and to work at the Swedish Medical Research Council before becoming a professor at Uppsala in 1981 and later also the first head of the University’s extremely highly respected Rudbeck Laboratory.
“For me it was a natural step to take. I have always been proud of belonging to Uppsala University’s scientific tradition and have given priority to doing what I can to give something back to the environment that has enriched my life so much.”

During his early years in Uppsala Ulf Pettersson met a string of the world leading figures who were making their mark on the University’s Faculty of Medicine at that time: prominent figures like the gynaecologist Carl Gemzell; the thoracic surgeon Viking Olov Björk; the plastic surgeon Tord Skoog; and, not least, Lennart Phillipson, a ground-breaking Professor of Microbiology, who was Pettersson’s supervisor during his doctoral studies and who was keen to stress to his young trainee that it was far better to have a well-composed research environment than to shine brilliantly as an individual.
“That is advice that I have borne in mind and that has consistently coloured my leadership. As the newly appointed Head of Uppsala University’s Department of Medical Genetics, I recruited Ulf Landegren och Ulf Gyllensten. During my years as Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I managed to recruit people including Dan Andersson, Leif Andersson and Kerstin Lindblad-Toh to the Faculty, researchers whose importance in making genetics a showcase subject at Uppsala cannot be stressed sufficiently.”

Along the way he and his colleagues have been highly involved in many of the exceptional advances made in the field. The charting of human DNA that once required 25 years and funding of several billions is now performed in a few days for the same cost as a modest mobile phone. The vision of customised health care via precise corrections of genetic mutations is quickly becoming less and less futuristic, but is the world really ready to handle all this newly acquired knowledge?
“Early ideas about using genetic means to create a homogeneous humanity were, of course, absurd, but have turned out to have no basis in reality. We now know that 99.9 per cent of people’s DNA is identical, but also that our individual variations are so complex that we can neither identify clear-cut patterns nor, as yet, say with certainty what consequences a single gene has for the individual. So, despite major advances, many challenges still remain, and I am looking forward to following future developments.”

At the same time as Pettersson discusses what treatments may become a reality in the coming years, he has a word of warning about the ability of Uppsala University to retain its position at the absolute forefront of medical genetics. Several leading researchers are nearing retirement age, and even though Pettersson sees successors with imposing qualifications, he views a lack of re-growth and renewal as risk factors.
“Our Faculty of Medicine has certainly made impressive prestige recruitments, but that kind of thing costs a lot of money. We must get better at identifying promising talents and already attract them at an early age. My recommendations are therefore to increase departments’ recruitment funds, to draw on the fantastic networks of our post-retirement researchers and to mould strong environments that are able to address scientific challenges.”

But when it comes to Pettersson, these are and remain no more than recommendations. The responsibility that follows from appointments as a University Board member and Deputy Vice-Chancellor have long since been passed on to new colleagues. He will leave the task of allocating the Beijer Foundation’s funding to promising new researchers at the end of the year, at the same time as the last member of the Ulf Pettersson Research Group will complete their activities – so will that be the end of an era? Well, not quite…
“My scientific interest is just as passionate as it ever was, but with the passing of time I am increasingly attracted to the scope for cultivating something new rather than continuing to build on my present foundations.” Many exciting projects are waiting in his desk drawers: I am planning to write a scientific history of our Faculty after 1977; I want to increase my involvement in the F1000 international research group; I want to have more time to formulate contributions to scientific debates; and I also have many interests outside the academic world that are demanding attention, so the time feels just right to take charge of my life again!

Magnus Alsne

Facts: Ulf Pettersson

Facts  Ulf Pettersson
  Post-Retirement Professor of Medical Genetics at Uppsala University
Age 76 years
Family Wife, two children and one dog, all equally wonderful.
On a good day I socialise with my wife, dog and friends, and like to top this off with a good dinner, beautiful music and a good film.
If I was to give myself a compliment It would be for what I have done outside natural science, including starting Konst och Läkekonst [Art and Healing] the production of Cellsamma historier {Strange tales] at Uppsala City Theatre and my contributions to the performance of the operas Tosca and Othello.
Qualities I appreciate  Cultivation and goodness, unhappily kindness is an under-appreciated quality in our time.
And finally I want to Express my sincere thanks to our funders and benefactors, especially the Anders Wall Foundation and the Beijer Foundation, without whose support our research achievements would not have been possible.