The Wihuri Research Institute was founded in 1944 by Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation. In its rules it was stated that the purpose was to “create conditions for Finnish scientists considered to be especially talented in the fields of natural sciences, medicine or technology, to develop their accomplishments as far as possible, so that, free from all other duties, they can devote themselves entirely to their research and by drawing benefit from all recent achievements of science, strive to create something new for the benefit of mankind.”
From 1945 to 2013 WRI was located in the Salus-hospital donated by the Rytkönen sisters to Wihuri Foundation in 1944. During the first decades, the Institute operated a small research hospital in addition to its research activities. The hospital activity was ended in 1983 to release funds for research. In 2013, WRI moved to the Biomedicum Helsinki research building at Academic Medical Center Helsinki.
During 76 years of its operations, WRI has had five directors who have each created their own research program for the Institute. The Institute has contributed significantly to the basic research of cardiovascular diseases.
The major research focus of the current director, Kari Alitalo, is on mechanisms that establish and maintain blood and lymphatic vascular systems, and their involvement in various human diseases. He has pioneered the work on vascular growth factors and their receptors, which regulate the blood and lymphatic vessels, and provide targets for the treatment of numerous vascular diseases.
Petri Kovanen developed the original concept in which activated “allergy cells”, the mast cells, contribute to cholesterol accumulation in the arterial wall and to the ensuing formation of atherosclerotic lesions. In late stages of lesion development, proteolytic enzymes and proinflammatory mediators released from activated mast cells contribute to plaque erosion and rupture, leading to acute cardiovascular events. The newly discovered mast cell-dependent molecular mechanisms provide potential therapeutic targets for atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases. After Kovanen’s retirement as the director, the Institute moved to Biomedicum Helsinki.
During the period of Vesa Manninen as its director, the research program of the Wihuri Research Institute included both clinical and experimental studies that served to define the roles of risk factors, such as dyslipidemia, hypertension, infections, and inflammation in coronary heart disease and myocardial infarction. Furthermore, the roles of blood coagulation and its clinical manifestations were studied in the pathogenesis of atheroclerosis. This research had close links to pharmacological studies on the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, with a special focus on the treatment of dyslipidemias.
Pentti Halonen, professor of Cardiology at the Helsinki University Hospital, found it ideal that the Wihuri Research Institute and the Salus Hospital coexist in the same building. This was a unique opportunity to perform translational research, which enabled new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to be implemented in patients. Halonen transformed the Wihuri Research Institute into a modern cardiology laboratory, and so created a critical mass that enabled the Wihuri Research Institute and Salus Hospital to jointly become the place in which the ”Finnish cardiology was born”. The Salus Hospital, called the “Experimental Hospital of the Wihuri Research Institute”, also offered an opportunity for young physicians to treat patients and to obtain clinical training in internal medicine and an in particular in cardiology. The clinicians could also perform scientific research in the Wihuri Research Institute laboratory to obtain the M.D./Ph.D. degree. After the death of Professor Halonen, the Hospital activities were terminated.
Alvar Wilska was an exceptionally multi-talented inventor, physicist, and physician-scientist. He was of world-class scientist and ahead of his time in many various fields. His main interest was the development of electrophysiological methods and electron microscopes. He was also a passionate promoter of many public health issues and even wrote about cholesterol in coronary heart disease. After the fusion of Wihuri Research Institute and the Salus hospital in Kaivopuisto, Helsinki, Wilska found it too demanding to act simultaneously as the Professor of Physiology at the University of Helsinki, as the Chief Physician of the Salus hospital and as the head of the Wihuri Research Institute. He thus resigned from the latter two positions and continued his brilliant scientific-technological career in Helsinki and abroad.