There he oversees the development of cancer-targeting cell therapies that can fight – and perhaps someday cure – leukemia and other cancers.
How did you get interested in molecular biology? I had biology and chemistry teachers who really inspired me. When I graduated from high school, I saw a flyer advertising a new, prestigious graduate program at the University of Göttingen that really excited me. I needed a bachelor’s program before I could go there, so I joined one that focused on life sciences research. I tend to like what comes easy to me, and after that, everything came easy. I ended up joining that graduate program for my master’s and PhD.
How does cell therapy work? We take immune cells from patients, genetically engineer them, then reintroduce them back into the patients. The primary applications are lymphomas and leukemias, and the success rates are so high that oncologists are talking about cures. It’s a complicated drug, incredibly potent, so only select academic health centers have access to it for now, and clinicians need special training to detect its side effects.
What’s most rewarding about what you do? A lot of labs are working on this, so the field is competitive and timelines are very fast. Novartis and Kite both started their clinical trials in 2012 and had approvals by 2017. It’s really satisfying for the scientists working on these drugs to see them approved so quickly. The multiple myeloma drug I developed at Pfizer before joining Kite is not yet in the clinic, but the prospect of seeing it in use in just a few years, and hopefully benefiting patients, is very powerful.
What do you like most about San Francisco? Germany is a rule-dominated country. San Francisco has more freedom, and no one tells you how to live your life. My husband and I live in the Castro, and it’s always exciting; you see things you’d never see anywhere else. My parents came to visit and they said, “Oh, there’s a naked person! Is that allowed?”
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