Angelika Amon’s interest in living systems runs deep.
How deep? When she was growing up in Vienna, Amon filled multiple scrapbooks with information on the topic: “I cut out every article I could find about plants and animals.”
It’s a passion that survives to this day. And it’s turned Amon — an MIT associate professor of biology and a Center for Cancer Research member — into an expert on how living cells replicate themselves.
Though an area of biology even some biologists find confusing, cell growth and reproduction are hugely important: misfires in the process, for example, have a role in every case of cancer.
Thanks to her discoveries about what’s called the cell cycle, Amon has achieved a rarified status among young biologists. She’s an investigator for the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute, an umbrella organization whose researchers work at labs around the U.S., and she’s also a winner of the Waterman Prize, awarded yearly to the country’s top young scientists.
But more rewarding to Amon than collecting honors is exploring the complex topic she’s made the focus of her life’s work. And since the cell cycle is closely linked to cancer, that aim potentially has key health implications. “To truly understand what goes wrong in cancer,” she says, “you need a detailed understanding of normal processes in the cell.”
One of Amon’s first insights into how existing cells make new ones occurred when, as a high schooler, she watched a through-the-microscope movie of a cell dividing.
The film shows what look like wriggling worms — actually chromosomes, the structures that harbor DNA — as they organize themselves: they divide into two groups, which end up opposite each other. Suddenly, a line appears between the two groups, as if to announce, “Okay, this one cell’s genes are now two cells’ genes.”
The film still fascinates Amon: “It’s hard for me to stop watching it,” she says.
Amon’s contributions to our understanding of the process began in grad school. With a freshly minted University of Vienna bachelor’s degree in biology in hand, she’d decided she wanted to join the lab of a well-respected biologist at a Viennese research institute. “I hopped on the subway, went and knocked on his door, and asked him, ‘Can I work with you?’ “‘Have you ever worked in a lab?’” he asked. “And I said, ‘No.’ But I still got the position.”
Amon’s not sure what did the trick, though it seems likely her air of determination helped. In any case, her mentor launched her on the study of baker’s yeast, an organism that can teach lessons about the cell cycle highly relevant to human cells.
Why so? In terms of what “keeps cells growing and dividing, and synthesizing everything they need,” says Amon, “there’s an 80 to 90 percent overlap between yeast and human cells.”
At the time, some parts of the cell-cycle picture were clear. For example, there’s a stage when the amount of DNA in a cell doubles — a prelude to creating two cells out of one.
Then there’s the point, highlighted in that movie, where the chromosomes form into two batches and separate. You can think of this as being like a country dance where the dancers, who’ve been milling around, eventually pair up and separate into two groups, which in turn go their separate ways.
AN AWESOME MOMENT
In early work, Amon showed how the biological factors whose job is to encourage and then, for a time, sustain the chromosomes in their divided state suddenly stop working. The effect is to let what are now two cells go back to what is, in effect, their “normal lives” — the dancers, now divided between two separate performance spaces, start milling around again.
What disables such factors? Scientists suspected there was one enzyme — let’s call it the dance-master — that had an especially key role.
Amon set herself a goal of pinpointing that enzyme. It took two years. Not long after she joined the MIT faculty, though, she and a co-worker finally found this substance, dubbed “CDC14,” in a cellular locale that meant it had to be their target.
The moment, recalls Amon, “was awesome! We were jumping up and down.”
Ever since, she’s been doggedly tracing other threads in what remains a sprawling and still incomplete tapestry. Among current interests: the way in which sperm and egg cells are created. (It’s a different process.) Discoveries like the one involving CDC14, meanwhile, have spawned a whole new area of inquiry.
“Angelika’s one of the most creative young scientists working in the area of cell-cycle regulation,” says Tyler Jacks, professor of biology and director of MIT’s cancer center. “She’s continually coming up with ideas that open up exciting new directions for research in the field.”
Her work, with that of others, is also influencing the search for new cancer treatments. But as Amon sees it, researchers have to do more homework before we see major progress against ailments like cancer.
“To create truly tailored drugs,” she says, “we need to understand the Achilles heel of every single kind of tumor.”
Whatever her own role in that effort eventually turns out to be, Amon confesses that what motivates her more than almost anything else is the thrill of the quest. “I’m a very lucky person,” she notes, “and that’s because my hobby is also my job.”