de la Rosa lab

MDC welcomes immunologist Kathrin de la Rosa

On July 1, 2018, a new research group on Immune Mechanisms and Human Antibodies began its work at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). The group is led by biologist Kathrin de la Rosa and is being funded by the Emmy Noether Programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Kathrin de la Rosa (née Kathrin Pieper)

Kathrin de la Rosa (née Pieper) found her calling early on in her research career. Even as a doctoral student, her work revolved around the B cell – the cell type that produces antibodies and is therefore indispensable for immune defense in the human body. “While at the University Medical Center Freiburg, I studied patients with weakened immune systems due to B-cell defects,” says the biologist. She found this field of research so fascinating that she went on to study B cells in even more depth, conducting her postdoctoral studies with the immunologist Antonio Lanzavecchia in Switzerland. “There, I learned how to isolate human antibodies in order to analyze the immune response to infectious diseases and thus lay the groundwork for developing new therapeutics and vaccines.”

During this time, she and two colleagues discovered a novel antibody with a special property: it “steals” a segment of another gene, LAIR1, thereby gaining an extra domain. The antibody can then use this “stolen” domain to detect different variants of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Kathrin de la Rosa and her colleagues were awarded the Pfizer Prize for Research in 2017 for their studies on the new mechanism of antibody diversification.

B cells generate production of desired antibodies

The discovery of the antibody was a chance find that the new junior research group leader hopes to pursue further at the MDC. “I want to develop an efficient technique that uses cells’ own abilities to modify human B cells in the blood and cause them to produce the desired antibodies,” explains Kathrin de la Rosa. To achieve this, she will break down the new mechanism of antibody diversification to show how DNA segments enter the antibody-coding genes at the molecular level and generate new antibody variants.

She already succeeded in reprogramming B cells to produce LAIR1 antibodies in experiments conducted for her application to the Emmy Noether Programme. The researcher plans to apply this method to other pathogen receptors. For example, she wants to produce B cells that are “specialized” in the immunodeficiency virus HIV. This would involve inserting a CD4 domain into the antibody, which is the receptor through which HIV infects the cells.

Precisely analyzing immune response using high-throughput methods

In her work, Kathrin de la Rosa uses high-throughput methods for the screening and production of human monoclonal antibodies. With this, she brings a versatile method to the MDC that can be used to precisely analyze how the human body’s immune system responds to individual pathogens. “These methods not only show us which antibodies are suitable for possible therapeutic approaches, but also what properties a vaccine should have to prevent a particular disease,” explains Kathrin de la Rosa.

At the MDC, she will work with Klaus Rajewsky and Michela Di Virgilio, whose expertise in the field of B cells and DNA repair will prove helpful in clarifying the new mechanism. “I am very much looking forward to making my contribution to the growing immunology community at the MDC,” says Kathrin de la Rosa – adding that she is also excited to be moving from tranquil Switzerland to gritty Berlin.