As malignant tumors develop differently in every person, no two cancers are ever the same. Scientists are constantly gaining a better understanding of why this is the case, allowing them to create far more precise and personalized therapies for every patient. But how exactly does the chosen treatment method affect the tumor, the immune system, and the relationship between the two? And how can these therapies be further adapted and improved? Il-Kang Na’s research is dedicated to finding answers to these questions. So far, her work has led her to discover certain immunodeficiencies caused by cancer therapies and to develop innovative ideas for new therapy approaches. Na discovered, for example, that cancer therapies can significantly impact the formation, function, and survival of the body’s own immune cells. She also successfully developed a model that allows her to observe how certain immune cells react during cell therapy.
Na has a clear goal in her position as BIH Johanna Quandt Professor: She wants to establish a monitoring system that provides detailed information about important disease and immune system parameters during treatment. “A patient’s course of therapy is initially determined on the basis of specific tumor and patient characteristics,” says Na. “The chosen therapy is usually only changed if and when clinical or imaging data show that the tumor is growing and spreading despite treatment.” But, she explains, a lot of time can pass before this comes about: “We therefore need to pay far more attention to changes in the tumor, its environment, and the immune system during treatment. This is the only way that we can recognize early on if a patient is not responding to treatment.” These changes are dynamic and hinder the efficacy of both medication and the body’s own immune defenses.
With the help of modern bioanalytical high-throughput technologies, the professor wants to develop a comprehensive tool that can record and monitor molecular and genetic changes at various moments during therapy. This tool would allow cancer treatment to be tailored to the individual patient and thus be significantly improved. Na wants to begin by developing a monitoring system for patients with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma – a cancer that originates from an immune cell. “My long-term goal is to also apply this technique to other treatments and diseases – not just cancer.”
“We are living in an age where new targeted cancer therapies and immunotherapies are progressing at a very fast pace,” says Professor Martin Lohse, spokesperson of the BIH Executive Board and Scientific Directorate, Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). “With her work, Professor Na is ensuring that these therapies can continue to be even more accurately tailored to the personal disease progression of every cancer patient.”
Il-Kang Na, born in Berlin in 1977, studied medicine at Freie Universität Berlin. She received her doctorate there in 2004, and then joined Charité for her residency and as a postdoc. After a postdoc fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Na started her own research group, Applied Transplantation Immunology, at the MDC’s and Charité’s Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC) in Berlin, where she also completed her postdoctoral lecture qualification in 2011. Na has received numerous awards for her research, including fellowships and research grants from the German Cancer Aid, the Else Kröner-Fresenius-Stiftung, and the German Research Foundation as well as the BSIO Female Independency Award.
BIH Johanna Quandt Professorships
Il-Kang Na is the third physician, after Petra Ritter and Ute Scholl, to be appointed to one of three newly created BIH Johanna Quandt Professorships that support the advancement of translational research. With the BIH Johanna Quandt Professorships, the Stiftung Charité supports the establishment of three W2 professorships at BIH specifically for women. Each of the professorships is coupled with a long-term perspective from the very beginning and therefore represents a pilot scheme for introducing a real tenure track. Another special feature of the BIH Johanna Quandt Professorships is that the applicants themselves determine the research focus of their professorship. The decisive factor for the selection was the innovative and interdisciplinary orientation with a translational approach. With the BIH Johanna Quandt Professorships, BIH, Charité, and Stiftung Charité are helping to ensure equal opportunities within the Berlin health-research sector.