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The Viennese molecular biologist and geneticist Angelika Amon is working to find a drug against cancer at MIT in Boston. But they still need EUR 50 million in funding.
The “prize” was USD 150,000. “That is enough to pay for food and cages for the mice for nine months,” the Viennese researcher said. In May, the 46-year-old scientist was awarded the 2013 Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine in Hamburg. Together with the director of the Institute for Biochemistry at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Ivan Dikic. Roughly 500 mouse cages (large enough for two to three mice each) can be found on the eighth floor of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The facility at 500 Main Street has been well known since April 19, 2013, for another reason, as a police officer was shot there during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. A small memorial was erected in his honor.
Mice and yeast
Angelika Amon is one of the world’s leading cancer researchers, an eminent authority in her field, but has remained down to earth, friendly and approachable. “Do you know what I really miss about Austria sometimes? Schokobananen, Mozartkugeln, Punschkrapferl and Leberkässemmeln,” she said, laughing. These are three sweets and a typical Austrian sandwich consisting of liver loaf on a kaiser roll. She is on a first-name basis with her colleagues, and is an authority without being authoritarian. Together, they are working towards the big goal: In her laboratory, they are researching the cellular causes of cancer. The phenomenon of aneuploidy is being studied using mice and normal yeast – “Yeast behaves like human cells.” “We are looking at how cells divide, and what happens when this division goes wrong and the genetic material is distributed incorrectly,” Amon explained in a futurezone interview. They already have a number of patents. An incorrect set of chromosomes is not only the cause of trisomy 21, but is also found in human cancers. “We are trying to find medicines, chemicals and substances that offset these weaknesses that lead to cancer cells having an incorrect set of chromosomes.” The goal is to develop new medications that can beat cancer.
The prize meant a lot to her, because it represents recognition for her work. “The important thing is that my research contributes to helping people and curing illnesses.” She already had a passion for science as a small girl. At first, she wanted to be a dinosaur researcher – like many children. Then a zoologist, and finally a cancer researcher – so that she can help cure illnesses that people used to die from. Her motivation to find substances that destroy aneuploid cells was the death of her father, who succumbed to liver cancer. “I was already a biologist at the time, and he said to me ‘Angelika, find something, please find something’,” Amon said. “How powerless I was shook me to my core.” That gave her the idea to try and cure cancer. “There have already been many breakthroughs, and certain kinds of cancer can be cured if they are discovered in time. For example breast cancer and leukemia. But we can do almost nothing against other kinds of cancer, like pancreatic cancer and brain tumors.”
“The worst thing is the e-mails in which parents tell of the suffering of their children. They write in the hope of receiving an answer that there is a cure.” But there usually is none, despite the fact that doctors often make claims to the contrary on television. “It is irresponsible when scientists claim to have a cure for cancer.” Scientists bear great responsibility, she said. But many like to be celebrated as stars. “In the USA, there is even a slogan: More people live from cancer than die from it.” Amon is angry about the money that is made off of cancer. Even though it would “only” take about EUR 50 million to discover a drug.
“I have always been very interested in the process of cell division,” Amon said. “But you have to ask the right questions, because that is the only way to get the right answers. And this requires clarity of thought and creativity. Amon defines research like this: You examine a fact and think about relevant questions that can be answered with simple and clear experimental procedures. When I do X, Y happens – and why does Y happen? Basic research will lead to medical breakthroughs.” But there are no guarantees. You can anticipate a great deal, but cannot discover everything. “We are trying to understand biological principles and are looking for substances.” And she might have luck, because that is also part of research. Amon: “My favorite story is that of Alexander Fleming, who was not looking to invent penicillin. It was an accident. He happened to notice in his laboratory that a mold that accidentally contaminated a staphylococcus culture killed the bacteria. And this led to the development of penicillin.” You cannot always predict major breakthroughs.
Funding is needed
“I cannot manufacture a drug against cancer, the pharmaceutical industry has to do that. It would go faster if I had a lot of money. About 10 to 15 million dollars, and then another 20 to 50 million dollars for clinical studies. We need funding, sponsors, maybe even the “crowd” that could support such projects together.”
But she is certain that there will be a drug that can repair the faulty chromosome in 10 to 15 years. “And because all cancer cells have the faulty set of chromosomes, we hope that this can also beat cancer.”
Angelika Amon also has a private life, of course, even though she says “my work is my hobby.” She is married, has two daughters, and unwinds by gardening. But aside from visits as part of her various activities in scientific organizations, she has no plans to come back to Austria; “The main reason that I don’t want to go to Vienna is because I don’t want to retire. I am very happy at MIT, and don’t want to make any changes right now.” Because even if we manage to cure all forms of cancer, there are plenty of other challenges in medicine, she said. Parkinson’s, for example, or one of the most widespread illnesses, Alzheimer’s. It is the cause of one third of all deaths at present.
Angelika Amon was born in Vienna in 1967 and went to the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge after graduating from the Institute for Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna. She went to MIT in 1999, where she has been a professor for cancer research since 2007. She was also on the supervisory board of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) from 2010 to 2012 and is on the scientific advisory board of the IMP and the Institute of Science and Technology (IST) in Austria.