Research and Teaching
Renée van Amerongen is associate professor and group leader Developmental, Stem Cell and Cancer Biology (DSCCB). Her main research interests lie in the area of WNT signaling, mammary gland biology and breast cancer research. She is actively involved in teaching, specifically in the BSc and MSc Biomedical Sciences and is coordinator of the minor Biomedical Sciences.
Driven by the notion that the same signals that control tissue morphogenesis and maintenance under healthy conditions become deregulated in disease, she aims to understand how cell-cell communication pathways can elicit specific, yet diverse responses depending on the developmental context. More details on the experimental model systems and approaches used to tackle this complex problem at multiple different scales (“from man and mouse to molecule”) can be found on her lab website.
A skilled writer and presenter, who is comfortable on stage in front of a large audience, Renée enjoys communicating the beauty of biology and the importance of fundamental research to experts and non experts alike. Over the years, she has built a broad portfolio of outreach activities to connect science and society. This includes frequent collaborations with artists and designers (BioArt & Design Award 2016, founder and director of the DSCCB artist-in-residence program in 2021) and talks on a broad range of topics (e.g. CRISPR/Cas, stem cells and regeneration, basic research in molecular and cell biology) for different audiences (ranging from elementary school kids to high school teachers and the general public).
Renée studied Medical Biology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (MSc 1999, cum laude) and performed her PhD thesis research with Anton Berns at the Netherlands Cancer Instiute (PhD 2005, cum laude). She was a postdoc with Roel Nusse at Stanford University (USA) and joined the University of Amsterdam as a MacGillavry fellow in 2013, receiving tenure in 2017. Renée was able to set up her research program at the intersection of developmental, stem cell and cancer biology thanks to a career development award from KWF kankerbestrijding (2013) and the award of an NWO-VIDI (2014). Work in her lab continues to be supported by NWO (highlights: NWO-XL in 2022 and NWO-ENW-M1 in 2021) and KWF kankerbestrijding (highlights: KWF project grants in 2015 and 2017).
What do we study and why does it matter?
Development of a multicellular organism requires tight control of cell proliferation, differentiation and polarized cell movements to ensure the correct assembly of cells into complex tissues. The same molecular mechanisms that normally guide these biological processes in the developing embryo, maintain tissue homeostasis in the adult. When disrupted, they are the underlying cause of degenerative diseases, tumor formation and, ultimately, aging.
But how does a single fertilized oocyte ultimately grow out into a complex animal with billions of specialized cells that carry out very different functions? And how is tissue function and integrity maintained in the adult? These are central questions in biology. As scientists, we need to unravel and understand the underlying molecular details, such that in the long run we can cure (or better yet, prevent) disease. Ultimately, scientists and clinicians want to be able to intervene in biological processes with great precision (i.e. using a strategy with high efficacy and minimal side-effects for that specific individual patient).
As an example: All multicellular animals use Wnt signal transduction as a molecular mechanism to control cell division, differentiation and movement. Our goal is to understand how this pathway operates at the molecular level to control complex cell behavior in 3D space and time and how it can can do so in a tissue-specific manner. This means that we need to be versatile in our experimental approaches and in our thinking. Sometimes we focus on the common themes and patterns to understand the core mechanistic details of a molecular process and sometimes we focus on finding the underlying cause for variation and differences that exist between different tissues, or between different animal species, or between healthy and diseased tissues. From day to day, we really operate at the interface of developmental, stem cell and cancer biology and I cannot think of anything more exciting.