Karin Pelka’s lab studies the cellular interactions that shape immune responses in human tumors, focusing on how these responses are regulated. Using a combination of large-scale genomic analyses and tissue imaging approaches, Pelka has identified hubs in tumor tissues where tumor cells come into close contact with immune cells. By characterizing the cells in these hubs, and the gene networks that are turned on in these cells, she aims to uncover novel ways to harness the immune system in the fight against cancer.
Areas of Expertise
Immunotherapy, the use of agents that stimulate or suppress immune responses to combat disease, has revolutionized the treatment of certain types of cancer. However, many cancers are unresponsive to immunotherapy for reasons that remain poorly understood.
Immune cells cannot execute their function in isolation, but require interactions with other immune and non-immune cells. Using a systems biology approach, Pelka discovered multiple cellular communities—or “hubs”—where malignant and immune cells interact in the tumors of patients with colorectal cancer. Furthermore, she found that tumors that were likely to respond to immunotherapy contained different types of hubs than those who don’t respond. By pursuing the characterization of immune hubs in solid tumors, Pelka and her team hope to identify molecular mechanisms that could be harnessed to design novel immunotherapies for currently non-responsive tumors.
Assistant Investigator, Gladstone Institutes
Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, UC San Francisco
Member Researcher, The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Gladstone Institutes
Karin Pelka, PhD, is an assistant investigator at Gladstone Institutes. She is also an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UC San Francisco.
Pelka aims to understand how immunological processes are regulated in human tissues in order to leverage the immune system in the fight against diseases such as cancer. Using unbiased high-throughput and high-content technologies and deeply mechanistic studies, she intends to systematically dissect how immune and non-immune cells work together to shape immune responses.
She earned a PhD in innate immunity from the University of Bonn in Germany, where she discovered a key regulatory mechanism that controls the detection of infection- or danger-associated nucleic acids by sensors of the innate immune system. She also contributed to several studies on the role of innate immune sensors in autoimmune diseases such as lupus and in the Western Diet-mediated epigenetic reprogramming of the innate immune system.
As a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, she shifted her interest to cancer immunology and systems biology. She led a cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional single-cell RNA sequencing and spatial profiling effort on human colorectal cancer. She discovered that these seemingly heterogeneous tumors contained several conserved and spatially organized multicellular interaction networks between malignant cells and immune cells.
She is a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer.
How Did You Get Your Start in Science?
Initially, it was pure fascination for all of nature’s clever solutions. Later, I realized how powerful a better understanding is in our fight against diseases.
Honors and Awards
2021 NIH Pathway to Independence Award K99/R00, National Cancer Institute
2020 Phillip A. Sharp Innovation in Collaboration Award, Stand Up To Cancer
2019 Peggy Prescott Early Career Scientist Award in Colorectal Cancer Research, Stand Up To Cancer
2019 BroadIgnite Award supporting bold ideas of early-career scientists, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
2018–2020 Research Fellowship, German Research Foundation
2016 PhD in Molecular Biomedicine ‘summa cum laude’
2010 Diploma in Molecular Biomedicine awarded with the highest distinction
2005–2010 Scholar, German Academic Scholarship Foundation
- Spatially organized multicellular immune hubs in human colorectal cancer. Pelka K, Hofree M, Chen J, Sarkizova S, Pirl JD, Jorgji V, Bejnood A, Dionne D, Ge WH, Xu KH, Chao SX, Zollinger DR, Lieb DJ, Reeves JW, Fuhrman CA, Hoang ML, Delorey T, Nguyen LT, Waldman J, Klapholz M, Wakiro I, Cohen O, Albers J, Smillie CS, Cuoco MS, Wu J, Su M, Yeung J, Vijaykumar B, Magnuson AM, Asinovski N, Moll T, Goder-Reiser MN, Applebaum AS, Brais LK, DelloStritto LK, Denning SL, Phillips ST, Hill EK, Meehan JK, Frederick DT, Sharova T, Kanodia A, Todres EZ, Jané-Valbuena J, Biton M, Izar B, Lambden CD, Clancy TE, Bleday R, Melnitchouk N, Irani J, Kunitake H, Berger DL, Srivastava A, Hornick JL, Ogino S, Rotem A, Vigneau S, Johnson BE, Corcoran RB, Sharpe AH, Kuchroo VK, Ng K, Giannakis M, Nieman LT, Boland GM, Aguirre AJ, Anderson AC, Rozenblatt-Rosen O, Regev A, Hacohen N. Cell. 2021 Sep 2; 184(18):4734-4752.e20.
- Massively parallel single-cell mitochondrial DNA genotyping and chromatin profiling. Lareau CA, Ludwig LS, Muus C, Gohil SH, Zhao T, Chiang Z, Pelka K, Verboon JM, Luo W, Christian E, Rosebrock D, Getz,G, Boland GM, Chen F, Buenrostro JD, Hacohen N, Wu CJ, Aryee MJ, Regev A, Sankaran VG. Nat Biotechnol. 2021 Apr; 39(4):451-461.
- Large-Scale Topological Changes Restrain Malignant Progression in Colorectal Cancer. Johnstone SE, Reyes A, Qi Y, Adriaens C, Hegazi E, Pelka K, Chen JH, Zou LS, Drier Y, Hecht V, Shoresh N, Selig MK, Lareau CA, Iyer S, Nguyen SC, Joyce EF, Hacohen N, Irizarry RA, Zhang B, Aryee MJ, Bernstein BE. Cell. 2020 Sep 17; 182(6):1474-1489.e23.
- Lineage Tracing in Humans Enabled by Mitochondrial Mutations and Single-Cell Genomics. Ludwig LS, Lareau CA, Ulirsch JC*, Christian E, Muus C, Li LH, Pelka K, Ge W, Oren Y, Brack A, Law T, Rodman C, Chen JH, Boland GM, Hacohen N, Rozenblatt-Rosen O, Aryee MJ, Buenrostro JD, Regev A, Sankaran VG. Cell. 2019 Mar 17; 176(6):1325-1339.e22.
- E. Western Diet Triggers NLRP3-Dependent Innate Immune Reprogramming. Christ A, Günther P, Lauterbach MAR, Duewell P, Biswas D, Pelka K, Scholz CJ, Oosting M, Haendler K, Baßler K, Klee K, Schulte-Schrepping J, Ulas T, Moorlag SJCFM, Kumar V, Park MH, Joosten LAB, Groh LA, Riksen NP, Espevik T, Schlitzer A, Li Y, Fitzgerald ML, Netea MG, Schultze JL, Latz. Cell. 2018 Jan 11; 172(1-2):162-175.e14.
- The Chaperone UNC93B1 Regulates Toll-like Receptor Stability Independently of Endosomal TLR Transport. Pelka K, Bertheloot D, Reimer E, Phulphagar K, Schmidt SV, Christ A, Stahl R, Watson N, Miyake K, Hacohen N, Haas A, Brinkmann MM, Marshak-Rothstein A, Meissner F, Latz E. Immunity. 2018 May 15; 48(5):911-922.e7.
- TLR9 Deficiency Leads to Accelerated Renal Disease and Myeloid Lineage abnormalities in Pristane-Induced Murine Lupus. Bossaller L, Christ A, Pelka K, Nündel K, Chiang PI, Pang C, Mishra N, Busto P, Bonegio RG, Schmidt RE, Latz E, Marshak-Rothstein A. J Immunol. 2016 Aug 15; 197(4):1044-53.
- TLR8 senses Bacterial RNA in Human Monocytes and Plays a Nonredundant Role for Recognition of Streptococcus pyogenes. Eigenbrod T, Pelka K, Latz E, Kreikemeyer B, Dalpke AH. J Immunol. 2015 Aug 1; 195(3):1092-9.
- OutKnocker: a web tool for rapid and simple genotyping of designer nuclease edited cell lines. Schmid-Burgk JL, Schmidt T, Gaidt MM, Pelka K, Latz E, Ebert TS, Hornung V. Genome Res. 2014 Oct; 24(10):1719-23.
- Cutting edge: the UNC93B1 tyrosine-based motif regulates trafficking and TLR responses via separate mechanisms. Pelka K, Phulphagar K, Zimmermann J, Stahl R, Schmid-Burgk JL, Schmidt T, Spille J-H, Labzin LI, Agrawal S, Kandimalla ER, Casanova J-L, Hornung V, Marshak-Rothstein A, Höning S, Latz E. J Immunol. 2014 Oct 1; 193(7):3257-61.