The University of Tartu has conferred the degree of Honorary Doctor of Neuroscience on Professor Mart Saarma for his outstanding achievements in neuroscience research and development and long-term fruitful collaboration with researchers of the University of Tartu.
Mart Saarma was born on 29 June 1949 in Tartu in a family of recognised medical doctors. In 1972, he graduated from the Faculty of Biology and Geography of Tartu State University as a biochemist and defended his Candidate of Biology degree at the same faculty in 1975. In 1987, he successfully defended his Doctor of Biology degree at the Institute of Molecular Biology of the USSR Academy of Sciences.
In 1977, Mart Saarma moved to Tallinn, where he became the head of the Department of Molecular Genetics of the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics. From 1986, he was a part-time professor at Tartu State University. In 1990, he was elected director and professor of the Institute of Biotechnology of the University of Helsinki. Since then, the University of Helsinki has been his main employer. In 2020, Mart Saarma became the research director of the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Helsinki.
Professor Saarma is a very reputable researcher who has been constantly at the forefront of science. He has a background in molecular neuroscience and has recently investigated the biology of neurotrophic factors and their therapeutic applications. He has discovered several glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) receptors. His research team was the first to solve the peculiarities of the crystal structure of the GDNF-GFRα1 receptor complex. He has developed small molecule GDNF mimetics that can protect nerve cells. He has discovered a new neurotrophic factor – brain dopamine neurotrophic factor CDNF – which, together with the homologous protein MANF (neurotrophic factor derived from midbrain astrocytes), forms a new family of evolutionarily conserved neurotrophic factors.
According to Google Scholar, Saarma's work has been cited 28,802 times, and his h-index is 79. Saarma has been active in the practical application of research results in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. He holds a number of patents, patent families and several research or licensing agreements with international pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Saarma is or has been a member or chair of scientific councils in several national and international institutions: vice president of the European Research Council, member of Estonian Research and Development Council, chair of the Heidelberg Neuroscience Center and a member of the EU Human Brain Project. He is also a member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, an external member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, a member of the Finnish Academy of Technology, a member of Academia Europaea and a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. His achievements have been recognised with the Estonian Order of Merit of the White Star (Second Class), the Knight, First Class, of the Order of the White Rose of Finland and the Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland.
Cooperation with the University of Tartu has had a special place in Professor Saarma's activities. He has repeatedly given lectures at the University of Tartu Faculty of Medicine and chairs the international scientific advisory board of the Centre of Excellence for Genomics and Translational Medicine of the University of Tartu. His cooperation with the University of Tartu Institute of Chemistry, especially with Prof. Mati Karelson and Prof. Jaanus Harro, is also important, focusing on the development and research of new GDNF mimetics. It is safe to say that without Mart Saarma's contribution as a partner, educator, consultant and spokesperson for our researchers, the University of Tartu would not be such a well-known and highly recognised centre of genomics and personalised medicine in Europe today.