On August 1, Amy Lee joined the Biology department as an Assistant Professor. Previously, Amy was an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Scholar in Jamie Cate’s lab at University of California, Berkeley. She received her Ph.D. in Virology from Harvard University in Sean Whelan’s lab and her Bachelors of Science in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Amy’s research focuses on understanding how gene regulation shapes cell growth and differentiation, and how dysregulation leads to human diseases like carcinogenesis and neurodegeneration. She is interested in discovering new mechanisms of mRNA translation initiation and novel functions of RNA-binding proteins and eukaryotic translation factors. Her research combines genome-wide and computational approaches together with molecular genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, and structural biology techniques.
Amy recently published a paper in Nature together with the Jamie Cate, Jennifer Doudna, and Philip Kranzusch describing the discovery of a new translation pathway that controls the production of proteins critical to regulating the growth and proliferation of cells. Cancer is characterized by uncontrolled cell growth, which means the protein production machinery goes into overdrive to provide the building materials and control systems for new cells. Hence, biologists for decades have studied the proteins that control how genes are transcribed into mRNA and how the mRNA is read and translated into a functioning protein. One key insight more than 40 years ago was that a so-called initiation protein must bind to a chemical handle on the end of each mRNA to start it through the protein manufacturing plant, the ribosome. Until now, this initiation protein was thought to be eIF4E (eukaryotic initiation factor 4E) for all mRNAs.
Amy and her colleagues discovered that for a certain specialized subset of mRNAs – most of which have been linked somehow to cancer – initiation is triggered by a different protein, called eIF3d. The finding was a surprise because the protein is part of an assembly of 13 proteins called eIF3 -eukaryotic initiation factor 3 – that has been known and studied for nearly 50 years, and no one suspected its undercover role in the cell. This may be because eIF3’s ability to selectively control mRNA translation is turned on only when it binds to the set of specialized mRNAs. Binding between eIF3 and these mRNAs opens up a pocket in eIF3d that then latches onto the end-cap of mRNA to trigger the translation process. Subsequent X-ray crystallography of eIF3d revealed the structural rearrangements that must occur when eIF3 binds to the mRNA tag and which open up the cap-binding pocket. eIF3d thus presents a promising new drug target in cancer, as a drug blocking this binding protein could shut off translation of only the growth-promoting proteins and not other life-critical proteins inside the cell.