center profile: dr.annette künkele

Today I have the privilege of introducing you to Dr. Annette Künkele. Some of you may recall at our benefit 2012 that we showed a video of neuroblastoma-killing T Cells, from Dr. Künkele’s microscope. Annette has been testing and retesting various velcro molecules that are the basis of how reprogrammed T Cells will recognize and destroy neuroblastoma tumor cells. Dr. Künkele, in conjunction with Dr. Julie Park, Ben’s doctor and an internationally recognized expert in treating neuroblastoma, are now drafting a Phase I clinical protocol, the next generation of T Cell therapy for neuroblastoma. Here is Dr. Künkele in her own words…


Dr. Annette Künkele 

Can you give us a brief summary of what your role is at the Center?  What do you do?

I am a pediatrician from Germany who applied for a grant from the German Government that enables me to take 2 years off from the clinic and spend this time entirely in a research lab abroad. Since my German lab focuses on neuroblastoma, the most common extracranial solid tumor in children, I joined Dr. Jensen’s lab where I can combine research in the field of neuroblastoma and in the field of immunotherapy. The main focus of my work is on optimizing our T Cell therapy for neuroblastoma. Therefore I work with T Cells, a subgroup of the white blood cells, which are the natural killers in our blood and protect us from infections by killing infectious cells. I isolate these T Cells from blood and “teach” them how to find neuroblastoma cells, and how to kill them in the most efficient way.

Why or how did you get into this line of work?  What motivates you in your work at the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research?

Since I started medical school I was interested in cancer. Therefore I did my thesis at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. Once I started my rotations through the different fields of medicine I noticed that I like working with children and I decided to combine these two. As a pediatrician with focus on pediatric oncology I am interested in immunotherapy. Dr. Jensen’s lab at the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research offers me a great chance not only to learn everything about T Cell therapy but also to be part in the development of a clinical trial. Within this trial we will treat children with neuroblastoma using the product I am helping to develop. This is the closest link between lab and clinical work you can get and what we call from bench to bedside. I definitely will not return to Germany before our first patient is enrolled. :)

What do you find most rewarding in regards to your work at the Center? What do you find most challenging?

The most rewarding and at the same time the most challenging is to work on a therapy that will hopefully save lives. That is why we get up every morning.

What do you like to do when you are not at work?  How do you spend your free time?

I like to go on a run through the Arboretum, watch American TV shows with my amazing 81 year old landlady Bobbie, read a book, or explore the West Coast.

*I obviously feel a very personal sense of gratitude for Dr. Künkele, Dr. Park and the entire team at the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research for their dedication towards defeating neuroblastoma. As I referenced way back in our CaringBridge days, anytime you need help “stabbing” anything – feel free to call me in.