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Kathrin Bernt, M.D. and Tobias Neff, M.D.


Kathrin Bernt and Tobias Neff are two of the most recent newcomers to the Gates Center.  Born in Munich, Germany, they did not meet until almost 30 years later as residents on the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplantation ward at the Charite in Berlin. Having both spent time in the US working in basic science labs as medical students in Seattle (Fred Huchinson Cancer Research Center) and Boston (Massachusetts General Hospital), they were interested in establishing a career as physician scientists and eventually decided to move back to the US to do so.

Kathrin knew from the time she was little that she wanted to be a doctor and a scientist.  She was intrigued by the thought of clinical work and also wanted to push the boundaries of science. Tobias, on the other hand, wanted to be a rock star and practice his electric guitar all day long.  By virtue of the mandatory army/civil service requirement in Germany, he spent 20 months in the urology department of the university hospital of his hometown Tuebingen.  Working as a media assistant, he discovered medicine from the sidelines.  He found it fascinating and imagined how technology and medicine could dovetail and progress.

After residency and fellowship training in Seattle (University of Washington/Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center), Houston (Texas Children’s Hospital/Baylor College of Medicine) and Boston (Boston Children’s Hospital/Dana Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard University), Kathrin and Tobias were looking for a great place to raise their family and launch their independent research careers. The University of Colorado AMC/Children’s Hospital Colorado was a perfect fit.  They joined the division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at UC-Denver because of its national leadership role in the treatment of Pediatric Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) and other pediatric cancers, and because of its very active phase 1 program, combined with a strong basic science community at the Anschutz Campus. This setting seems ideal to build a research enterprise with a basic-to-translational focus.  They are also impressed by the collaborative spirit of potential fellow faculty members, the outstanding facilities and the very warm welcome and help they received during their interviews and first few weeks here. 

They explain their research emphasis as follows:

Thematically, we are interested in exploring the contribution of aspects of "stemness" to the development of leukemia and possibly other cancers. Irrespective of the semantic battles about the existence of a "cancer stem cell”, it is clear that there are genetic programs that are active in normal stem cells, that are also active in cancer cells. Failure to shut down these programs during development or aberrant re-activation of such programs in cancer cells contributes to the development of cancer. Intriguingly, the failure to inactivate or re-activation of such programs may be controlled through epigenetic mechanisms, i.e. enzymatic modification of DNA and DNA associated proteins that can be modulated  through pharmacologic intervention. We are interested in understanding how the genetic programs that govern the development of cancers are similar to genetic programs that define stem cell identity, and where they differ. In addition, we are trying to learn how we can specifically modulate these programs using drug-like compounds in an attempt to develop better therapies for childhood cancer.  

Kathrin and Tobias plan to develop their own program while at the same time identifying opportunities for collaborations in the stem cell/cancer/epigenetics community at UC Denver. After July 2013 they will also attend for 20% of their time in pediatric oncology at Children’s.

Off campus, they love Denver, were thrilled at the early snow in October and can barely wait for the first skiing.  In the meantime, their two children are enrolled in the Montclair Mandarin Program, and the family enjoys play dates, swimming and hiking together.  And there’s always music; Kathrin plays the piano, and Tobias still strums the electric guitar—but alas, not as much as in the old days…

Their webpages are:

http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/medicalschool/departments/pediatrics/subs/hemonc/research/labs/NeffLab/Pages/Neff%20Lab.aspx

http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/medicalschool/departments/pediatrics/subs/hemonc/research/labs/BerntLab/Pages/berntlab.aspx