An R21 award will help Hope Amm, Ph.D., further a lifelong journey of scientific discovery by advancing her research on genetics and signaling pathways in oral tumors.

An assistant professor in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Dentistry, Amm received the award for her project, Non-invasive imaging of ameloblastomas, from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The funding extends previous discoveries toward new directions or applications.

Early inspiration

Hope AmmAmm’s love of science came early on. She credits her family for sparking her interest. “My mom’s favorite class was biology and my dad had been a chemistry major. So I grew up talking about classifications of animals, their family, genus and species, and other science-related topics. My dad would tell me I had to rinse all glassware three times like he learned in the lab,” she said.

Later, her entry into scientific research was inspired by her grandmother, who had severe rheumatoid arthritis. To understand its physiology, she remembers the disease being the first topic she researched while earning her B.S. in Biological Sciences. An undergraduate mentor encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree that would again be motivated by family ties.

Driven by a family history of breast cancer, Amm entered the Breast Cancer Training Program as a Ph.D. candidate at UAB. Throughout the program, she worked on understanding how new therapies for breast cancer worked with existing chemotherapies. She would go on to earn her Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Toxicology with a focus on cancer biology and novel therapeutics.

Post-doctoral training

By the time she completed her Ph.D., Amm had become interested in odontogenic tumors, or tumors arising in tissues that form the teeth. She said, “While many tumors are benign, they can still require extensive, life-altering surgery.” Seizing the opportunity to apply her knowledge of drug development in a new area – to impact oral tumors – she joined the UAB School of Dentistry research team.

As a post-doctoral scholar, Amm completed the Dental Academic Research Training (DART) program in the laboratory of Dr. Mary MacDougall. She was also a Mentored Experiences in Research, Instruction, and Teaching (MERIT) program Scholar-at-Large, which provided teaching experiences at minority-partner institutions. She credits her mentor, MacDougall, for providing robust teaching and collaborative research experiences that set UAB apart.

“The dental academia environment at UAB turned out to be a perfect fit for my two interests, teaching and research,” she shared. “I can teach courses to early dental students and have undergraduates (aspiring dentists) who work in and enrich my lab. It also allows me to work with a patient population not represented much in research.”

Pilot funding advances teaching and research

In 2015, Amm was awarded K99/R00 pilot funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). That funding, which was the result of her post-doctoral work and strong mentorship, allowed her to obtain a faculty position at UAB to advance her teaching and research efforts.

“This grant supported my early research focusing genetics and signaling pathways in oral tumors,” she said. “Particularly those that play a role in the pathogenesis of human oral cancers and odontogenic tumors with a goal to develop therapies and diagnostic tools, with an emphasis on targeted therapies.”

With the end of the K99/R00 grant in early 2021, Amm sought new opportunities to move her research forward. She secured the R21 as a continuation of her work.

Developing a new model

Hope Amm working in her lab with her teamAmm’s latest NIH funding will allow her to develop a new animal model for ameloblastomas, which are rare oral tumors that occur within the bones of the jaw. The goal of the animal model is to determine the best method to image these tumors prior to or during surgery with fluorescently or radiolabeled antibodies specific for the tumors.

“With tumors and cancer, any tumor cell left behind can potentially cause recurrence,” she said. “We want to provide surgeons a means of accurately determining the tumor margins.”

In a pilot study funded by the UAB Office of Community Outreach and Engagement (OCOE) and Experimental Therapeutics (ET) training program of the National Cancer Institute, Amm will compare oral bacteria samples from different types of oral cancer patients, as well as healthy volunteers from the same communities. “We want to understand how the oral bacteria impacts the growth and invasion of oral and oropharyngeal cancer,” she said.

Ultimately, funding from UAB gives Amm the opportunity to engage a larger patient population and focus on oral cancer, a topic important to Alabama.

Success of the R21 project would provide the foundation of a clinical trial for patients.

Collaborative efforts

The Amm Lab works with patient samples, benign and malignant, to conduct basic science and translational, or use-inspired, research.

Applying knowledge from biology and clinical trials, Amm addresses critical medical needs and improvement of health outcomes. She credits her ability to work with patient samples, saying she works closely with oral surgeons on projects to provide better diagnostics and surgical outcomes. “My focus is on how to translate the biology of oral tumors into therapies or other new ways to help patients. Each of my projects involves a team of excellent colleagues and students at the School of Dentistry and around UAB.”

Amm has collaborated on projects related to the genetic and molecular basis of craniofacial diseases, particularly odontogenic tumors. She has characterized numerous cellular models of odontogenic tumors and developed new in vivo models.

Her work has been funded by the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, and the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation.

Leadership and service

While Amm’s journey of scientific discovery continues, she is also being tapped for positions of leadership and service.

She was recently selected as a mentee for the American Association of Dental Research Mentoring an Inclusive Network for a Diverse Workforce of the Future (AADR MIND the Future) Program. The program provides one year of educational activities and interactive opportunities between mentors and mentees to support the development of junior faculty in a diverse oral and craniofacial biomedical research workforce.

Amm has also been appointed to the American Association of Dental Research (AADR) National Student Research Group (NSRG) Faculty Advisors. She served as Member-at-Large of the group’s executive board as a postdoctoral student. Now, she will represent UAB as an advisor.

Newly installed as the school’s faculty council chair, Amm shares “The faculty council brings new resources to faculty, so I will be on the lookout for those opportunities.”

With an appreciation for and a spirit of collaboration, Amm is sure to do just that.