Perspectives – growing our knowledge

Researcher Profile: Lars Wallentin

A passion for problem-solving

Over the years, Lars Wallentin has acquired an almost unique position in the world of medical research, or, as Google has it, the status of ‛international superstar cardiologist’. For his own part, the 71-year-old senior professor can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

‛Autographs? Well, I do get asked to write them now and then, and sometimes people want to have their photo taken with me. Naturally, all that attention can be quite enjoyable, but I find it wiser not to dwell on it too much. Besides, it must be much more fun to be young and promising than to be some sort of legend.’

The position of international superstar cardiologist has most definitely not gone to Lars Wallentin’s head. The now 71-year-old senior professor receives us in a spartanly furnished room in the heart of Uppsala Clinical Research Center (UCR), which he has spent thirteen years developing into a leading centre of cardiology expertise. Having stepped down as head of UCR at the turn of the year, he has seen his working week slashed to a mere forty hours.

‛These days I devote myself exclusively to research,’ Professor Wallentin explains. ‛Having always been the most enjoyable part of my work, with the years research has become a hobby as well as a natural  part of my life, which now allows me to go on having fun with the playmates I’ve had for many years.’

Outside the window, the Uppsala University Hospital buildings loom tall against the autumn sky. It was here that Lars Wallentin returned in 1991 after twenty years at Linköping University. Even though the good research years – as he describes them – were then still to come, he was already a well-known name in the Swedish healthcare community, thanks not least to the national healthcare quality registries that he played a key role in creating.

‛As a cardiologist in Linköping, I took the initiative to establish our first quality registry, whose prime purpose was to eliminate unsound and harmful treatments. At the end of the 1990s, we developed the first national quality registries system by placing small Mac computers in the country’s coronary care units, which one of my PhD students managed from the basement of his home. As pioneers, we encountered both resistance and envy, but today I would venture to say that the national quality registries system we created is the “golden egg” of Swedish healthcare.’

Well installed as Uppsala University’s first Professor of Cardiology, Lars Wallentin quickly assumed a central role in developing Uppsala University Hospital’s coronary care unit. This helped shorten the distance between Uppsala’s strong tradition in basic research and the practical implementation of that research in the healthcare system. With the years, the Wallentin research group has had success in many significant areas. The key to this development, he believes, was probably the discovery that the blood clot preventive effect of a very small dose of Magnecyl offered very high levels of protection against acute coronary syndrome.

‛While the overarching aim was to develop new diagnostic methods and therapies,’ Professor Wallentin explains, ‛simply developing an understanding of the underlying mechanisms of cardiovascular disease and blood clot formation formed the basis for enabling us to continue research into achieving better health and healthcare. UCR is currently involved in a number of projects with connections all over the world, and has attained a reputation that opens doors for many researchers to participate in attractive, international projects.’

What is there still to achieve in a career which appears to have spanned most types of endeavour and most distinctions that a researcher could possibly imagine (or which, as the European Heart Journal has suggested, lacks only a Nobel Prize to make it complete)? Quite a number of things, in fact, if we are to believe Lars Wallentin himself.

‛I dream about creating methodologies that will give us a direct understanding of the disease mechanisms and the needs of each individual patient, so that the information we possess in our quality registries can provide direct, computer-based clinical decision support for the best and most effective therapies. With sufficient investment in large-scale registry projects, that goal is fully realisable and is a vision we also share with central quality registries in the USA.’

Throughout our interview, he returns repeatedly to the importance of humility and cooperation between people who share a deep commitment to, and enthusiasm for, improving healthcare: ‛Life as a researcher is about finding the right area to research and about devoting one’s life to solving problems. Hoping for a swift economic return and personal fame is completely the wrong approach. It is better by far to be self-critical, to be able always to delight in each success and to quickly forget the failures. If one is able to do that, one can expect a tremendously rewarding and enjoyable career!’

Magnus Alsne

Facts – Lars Wallentin

In brief:

Title: Senior Professor of Cardiology.
Family: Married (to Anna, former docent in education at Uppsala University), two children (Jan, author of the novel Strindbergs stjärna, and Katarina, internationally active course leader) and four grandchildren.
Leisure interests: Lots of hiking, skating, skiing and badminton.
When people least expect it: I get out my guitar and play, usually the songs of Bellman and Taube.

Facts:

In 1991, Lars Wallentin became the first Professor of Cardiology at Uppsala University, where he founded and was head of the coronary care unit from 1991 to 1999. In 1992, he started the national quality registry for acute cardiovascular care, which in the early 2000s was developed into a model for web-based research and development in the general Swedish healthcare system.

In 2001, Lars Wallentin founded the Uppsala Clinical Research Center (UCR), which now has more than 100 staff, operates more than 20 national quality registries, and is a centre for major international clinical trials and their biobanks for biochemical and genetic analysis.

Lars Wallentin’s research has been devoted since the mid-1980s to acute coronary syndrome, with his research group having developed a number of new methods to better understand the causes of the disease and to select the most appropriate treatment. The research group has been at the forefront of developing the highly effective treatments for acute myocardial infarction that we possess today, in the form of low doses of acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) to inhibit blood clots, or drugs like ticagrelor and various heparins, as well as immediate percutaneous coronary intervention.

The research group has also pioneered the development of new blood clot inhibitors for stroke prevention in patients with atrial fibrillation. This research has also led to completely novel methods of biochemical blood analysis to assess the individual patient’s risk and need for different treatments.

Lars Wallentin chaired the Swedish Society of Cardiology from 1998 to 1999, and also founded and was head of the Swedish Heart Association from 2000 to 2002. Among his distinctions, he has been awarded the European Society of Cardiology’s Gold Medal for outstanding contributions to cardiac research. In 2012, Lars Wallentin was made an honorary citizen of Uppsala in recognition of his services to society.

Find out more