Since childhood, Mikael Akke has been driven by a desire to understand how things work in nature. Biology and chemistry were favourite subjects in school, and his first ‘laboratory’ was an aquarium housing African cichlids.
“Watching the fish’s behaviour and taking care of the aquarium, an ecosystem in miniature, inspired me to study science,” says Mikael Akke.
Since then, his lab environments have become more advanced. At Kemicentrum, where Mikael Akke is based, his research team mostly use the NMR lab. NMR stands for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, a technique that is used to investigate the structure and dynamics of molecules.
In Mikael Akke’s case, the focus in on protein molecules. Above all, how protein molecules move and how other molecules bind to them.
“The binding process between protein and pharmaceutical molecules is thought to be an important pointer in the development of the medicines of the future,” says Mikael Akke.
Hoping for better medicines
That may also be what the funding agencies are hoping for – that the basic research will lead to better medicines in the future. One step in that journey will, according to Mikael Akke, be to “crack the allosteric code.”
“Allostery is a basic characteristic of proteins that arises when a certain type of molecule binds to a protein, affecting its ability to bind other molecules. If we learn more about allostery, we can also understand certain diseases better and design more targeted medicines.”
Allosteric medicines are considered important in battling cancer and inflammatory diseases, and a couple of medicines are already in use. But there are more to come, according to Mikael Akke.
One necessary approach for understanding proteins is computer-based simulations of how they move. But when Mikael Akke began his career as a researcher, the available technology was completely different from today’s.
“I did my first simulations on a VAX computer at the University of California San Diego in the mid-1980s. The technology was advanced for its time of course, but the simulations we can do with today’s technology are naturally of an entirely different kind and the VAX computer is probably best placed in a museum.”
Degree project in the USA
He was a student in the chemical engineering program at LTH, but thanks to Lund University’s exchange programme, Mikael Akke was able to carry out his degree project, about the movement of molecules, on the other side of the Atlantic.
“When I later became a research student, I was fortunate to get the opportunity to divide my time as a doctoral student between Lund University and the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. This involved four years of long-term commuting – nine months in San Deigo and three months in Lund each year.”
Mikael Akke describes the environment in San Diego as a combination of beaches, motorways and advanced research. It was not the car-centric infrastructure that appealed – it was the beautiful nature, rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park and participating in exciting research environments. And it was in the USA that Mikael Akke learned the basics of nuclear magnetic resonance.
“First as a doctoral student at Scripps, then as a postdoc at Columbia University in New York, where I got to be part of building an advanced NMR laboratory from scratch.”
Chose Lund again
The knowledge gained is something that has served Mikael Akke well in his Lund laboratory, which has been the centre of his research since 1998. At the time, Lund had the best NMR equipment in Sweden, and when he was offered a position as senior researcher funded by the Swedish Research Council, he decided to return home.
The lab was recently equipped with two new magnets – equipment that enables further great leaps in understanding the biophysical chemistry of proteins.
“Thanks to the University’s and the faculties’ investments in infrastructure, we now have access to really advanced instruments that are very sensitive. The new instruments make it possible to perform novel, unique experiments,” says Mikael Akke.
Larger research teams
The new research grants allow Mikael Akke’s research group to grow by another ten individuals, including doctoral students, postdocs and senior researchers. They all belong to a team that wants to crack the allosteric code and pave the way for the precision medicines of the future.
And, even if he has a few years left before retirement, which will allow more time for other interests, Mikael Akke is already planning to rediscover his childhood interest in aquaria. It will be a rainforest terrarium this time – because it was actually poison dart frogs that he wanted as a child.