Meet Our Researchers


Postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)

Karin Pelka studies cancer immunology—which focuses on how to harness a patient’s own immune system to attack tumors.

Project Description

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. While recent developments in checkpoint inhibitors—an important class of cancer immunotherapies—hold great promise, most patients do not respond to these powerful drugs, for reasons that remain unclear. Karin wants to find out why by using her BroadIgnite funding to analyze colorectal tumors from patients at MGH.

The Question

Recently, a groundbreaking new class of drugs called checkpoint inhibitors—which invigorate the patient’s immune system to attack tumors—has provided many cancer patients with hope. But there’s a catch: they don’t work for most cancers, and even patients with potentially responsive tumor types don’t always benefit from this treatment. Given this gap in effectiveness, I want to answer a basic but critical question in cancer research today: Who is most likely to benefit from these drugs, and what can we do for those who don’t?

The Approach

I plan to build off the work that has been done recently uncovering many of the common and patient-specific genetic, epigenetic, and immunologic features of colorectal tumors. This work is a collaboration between the Broad Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, and the Evergrande Center for Immunologic Diseases. As the next step, we need to test a variety of hypotheses about how these features might correspond to treatment responses.

To this end, using my BroadIgnite award, I will run a series of tests on tissue samples derived from patients with colorectal cancer who are being treated at MGH. Specifically, I will perturb the samples with a variety of small and large molecule therapeutics customized to the specific genetic and immunologic features of the tumor and measure how much the tumor shrinks in the different conditions. It’s my hope that the results of these experiments will unveil links between genetic and immunologic variation and treatment response. We can then use that information to better stratify patients for current immune therapy regiments and open the door to new combination treatments for patients currently left behind.