By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt
Biologist Katja Lamia thinks a lot about how you sleep. Her studies at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) focus on how our daily sleep-wake cycles, called circadian rhythms, influence health.
“What you might not realize is that these circadian clocks control many other aspects of physiology,” said Lamia. “There’s even a clock in your liver that regulates the production and secretion of glucose depending on the time of day.”
Bad things happen when these clocks get turned around. An uptick in diabetes, heart disease and metabolic disorders has been reported in many groups with backwards circadian cycles, such as jet-lagged flight attendants and night-shift workers. In 2007, the World Health Organization identified circadian disruptions as a risk factor for cancer—and classified shift work as a probable carcinogen.
But scientists still don’t know why these people are at greater risk. So, Lamia and her lab members are on a mission to understand how circadian proteins keep us healthy.
From Dance Major to Biologist
Biology wasn’t Lamia’s first stop. She entered the University of California, Berkeley, as a dance major, inspired by renowned choreographer Martha Graham. Lamia was considering a second major in the sciences when she took a chance and signed up for an honors physics class.
“It wasn’t what I expected to do, but growing up, I always really liked math,” said Lamia. “It turned out I really loved physics.” She ended up taking quantum mechanics during the summer—while still listed as a dance major. Then she officially changed her major.
Lamia worked in a physics teaching lab during the summer and later did a summer internship at the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, where she learned how to culture cells. That first experience in the lab sparked her interest in somehow jumping from physics to biology. She even brought biology and physics together as part of an internship in a biophysics lab at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Lamia hadn’t even heard about circadian clocks until she started graduate school at Harvard University. She enrolled in a class taught by Woody Hastings, one of the founders of the field of circadian biology—and she was hooked.
“I was fascinated with the idea that there could be these oscillations in organisms and in cells that synchronize with the environment,” Lamia said. “With my background in physics, I thought, ‘how could this possibly work?’ ”
Unlocking Our Clocks
Lamia came to San Diego in 2007, when she was hired as a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, just blocks from TSRI.
Lamia was job searching a few years later when she saw an opening at TSRI. “TSRI was at the top of my list because it’s such a great institute,” said Lamia. She was drawn to the opportunities to collaborate with chemists, physiologists and structural biologists at TSRI. “One of the biggest strengths here is the scientific diversity.”
Today, Lamia’s lab is hard at work studying the roles of the “cryptochrome” proteins, called Cry1 and Cry2. Scientists know these proteins help regulate the circadian clock, but they are still finding other roles for the proteins in the body.
In 2015, Lamia’s lab was the first to show that Cry1 and Cry2 don’t always operate as partners. In fact, Cry1 and Cry2 appear to have opposing roles in regulating cell growth. Lamia and her lab members showed that a protein called Hausp, which is an important regulator of an anti-cancer protein called p53, can swoop in to stop Cry1 degradation, potentially protecting cells from becoming cancerous.
In a follow-up study, Lamia and her team found that disruptions in circadian rhythms may leave levels of an important cancer-linked protein, called cMYC, unchecked. The researchers studied the effects of deleting Cry2 in mouse cells, and they found that without Cry2 keeping cMYC at normal levels, there was an increase in cell proliferation—similar to the abnormal growth seen in cancers.
Lamia’s work has also earned her national recognition. In 2012, she received a Searle Scholars Award, which highlighted her “potential to make significant contributions to chemical and biological research” over her career. In 2013, she received the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Research Scholar Award, which bridges the funding gap for gifted young cancer researchers at the very outset of their careers.
Lamia thinks the general public is becoming more aware of the importance of circadian clocks in health. She meets people who ask about circadian clocks as they try to understand why their kids won’t stick to a bedtime. She also sees greater emphasis on preventing dangerous “drowsy driving.”
Lamia said the ultimate achievement would be to reveal how circadian rhythms control disease—so she and her lab members are chipping away at the problem one day at a time.
“I think we’re still at the beginning of this,” said Lamia, “We need to have the building blocks to understand how things really work.”
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