Kathrin de la Rosa is interested in the human immune system and its amazing capabilities. “I am fascinated by how the incredible diversity of immune cells arises. Our immune system can provide a tailored response to almost any pathogen that invades the body,” the immunologist says. “Another thing I like about my research is the proximity to the clinic: In the field of immunology, basic researchers and clinicians often work closely together to gain new insights.”
Close collaboration between bench and bedside
De la Rosa also likes the interaction between basic research and clinical practice at the BIH. “There is always a gap between the bench and the bedside,” she explains. “It’s often difficult for basic researchers to apply their findings to real-life health challenges, such as by launching clinical trials. That’s exactly what the BIH does well – a good example is the Clinical Study Center, which is part of both the BIH and Charité and whose staff helps you bridge the gap.”
Professor Christopher Baum, Chair of the BIH Board of Directors and Chief Translational Research Officer of Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, is delighted by this appointment: “The Johanna Quandt Professorships allow us to specifically target outstanding female scientists who seek to translate their research discoveries into clinical practice. With her groundbreaking immunological projects, Kathrin de la Rosa fits very well into our concept of personalized medicine and translation.”
Cellular vaccination is the goal
De la Rosa’s lab is looking for alternative ways of genetically engineering B cells that do not use artificial gene editing systems. In her earlier work in the laboratory of immunologist Antonio Lanzavecchia in Bellinzona, Switzerland, de la Rosa studied unusually large antibodies. These antibodies have a built-in receptor that normally serves as an entry port for pathogens at the cell surface. When the receptor is integrated into an antibody, it causes the pathogens to be efficiently intercepted before they bind to the cells and destroy them. “This is an incredibly clever defensive trick that we hope can be used to create new treatments.” De la Rosa’s lab is trying to understand how the mechanism responsible for integrating the receptor into the antibody works. “The DNA in B cells contains common fragile sites that can be used to modify B cells.” De la Rosa and her team are currently investigating the exact mechanism with the long-term goal of developing a cellular vaccine. “One could imagine modifying B cells outside the body to produce, for example, antibodies that contain the receptor for HIV,” she explains. “Once inside the patient’s body, these modified B cells could produce large quantities of antibodies, which in turn would render the virus harmless.” For this exciting and innovative project, de la Rosa recently received a €1.5 million ERC Starting Grant from the European Commission.
Also holds promise for cancer research
In addition to engineering B cells, the lab is also pursuing new strategies to improve classic vaccines. In another project, the scientists are investigating whether the study of common fragile sites in antibody genes may also be useful as biomarkers for cancer development or in selecting the appropriate cancer therapy. “This involves trying to apply methods we have developed for analyzing antibody diversity to other areas,” says de la Rosa. This is because the body’s own modification of B cells not only protects it from pathogens, but also carries the risk of causing cancer.
De la Rosa studied biology in Freiburg and did her doctorate on an immunological topic at the University Medical Center Freiburg. She initially stayed in Freiburg as a postdoc at the Center for Chronic Immunodeficiency, an institute of the university hospital. She then went to the Institute of Biomedical Research in Bellinzona, where she delved deeper into the study of B cells under Professor Antonio Lanzavecchia. An Emmy Noether Fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG) subsequently brought her to the MDC in Berlin as a group leader. She will continue to lead her MDC lab “Cancer & Immunology / Immune Mechanisms and Human Antibodies,” which has seven staff members.
About the BIH Johanna Quandt Professorships
Stiftung Charité and the BIH have jointly launched the BIH Johanna Quandt Professorships (temporary W2 professorships with a genuine tenure track). The novel professorship scheme targets specifically female scientists in order to provide an impetus for the promotion of equal opportunities in the life sciences. The professorships are filled through an international recruitment process and include a binding option for permanent tenure as a lifetime professorship (genuine tenure track). In addition, the professorships are open to all topics, offering the applicants the opportunity to develop the orientation of their professorships themselves, also beyond the usual biomedical disciplines, and to have an innovative impact on the BIH’s translational mission. Along with the three Johanna Quandt Professors selected in 2017, a total of seven BIH Johanna Quandt Professorships will enrich the life sciences in Berlin by the end of this year (see also the press release by Stiftung Charité from August 31, 2021, at https://www.stiftung-charite.de/infos-presse/presse).