From a fascination with viruses to a desire to make a lasting impact, Immunic's Hella Kohlhof shares her journey

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

© Immunic Therapeutics
© Immunic Therapeutics

Related tags Virus Immune system Cancer Research Oncology Data management Women in Science

Wedneday is Women in Science day and we have a fantastic interview with Hella who is co-founder and chief scientific officer of Immunic Therapeutics.

She loves her job and works within a team that believes in the power of diverse perspectives and robust discussions. Read on to discover how she got to where she is today. 

Could you give us an overview of your work?

As chief scientific officer, I oversee the scientific strategy and preclinical development pipeline for our projects at Immunic. My work involves advancing our programs from discovery through preclinical to late-stage clinical trials, in particular defining the mode of action of our molecules, overseeing preclinical studies to demonstrate the safety of our compounds, and identifying biomarkers that offer early indications or support for clinical activity. Additionally, I play a crucial role in overseeing quality management to ensure compliance with industry and regulatory standards.

I am also involved in disseminating scientific information to various stakeholders, including investors, physicians, scientists, the broader public and also within Immunic to our teams, thereby ensuring both internal and external stakeholders are well-informed and aligned with our objectives. I also contribute to writing and editing scientific papers and lay articles, and attend and speak at industry and scientific conferences. By effectively communicating our scientific advancements and achievements, we not only foster transparency but also enhance our reputation as a leader in the field of immunology.

Furthermore, as part of the founder and management team, I am part of both the strategic and operational decision-making processes. By providing valuable insights and expertise, I help steer our company towards achieving its goals and maximizing its potential for success.

When did you realize you were interested in science - as a young child, teen, or older?

During my teenage years, around the age of 16, I remember a lesson at school that ignited my fascination with viruses. It was captivating to learn about these tiny entities, devoid of the capacity to sustain life on their own yet using the ability to take control of the complex inner workings of a human or animal cell, causing chaos in our bodies. It was remarkable to contemplate how something so small and seemingly simple could orchestrate such complex interactions, resulting in many different diseases and health problems.

This newfound fascination spurred me to dive deeper into the realm of virology, seeking to understand the mechanisms behind viral infections and the strategies employed by our immune system to combat them.

Today, as I reflect on that pivotal moment in my education, I am grateful for the opportunity to explore the fascinating world of viruses, the interplay with the immune system, viruses’ implication on cancer development, and the endless possibilities for discovery that lie ahead. Once you are infected with this curiosity, the possibilities really seem to be endless.

Could you describe your personal journey bringing us to where you are now? 

My scientific journey began as a technician in a laboratory. Early on, I realized the importance of diagnostic work, however, I wanted to dive deeper into the cellular and physiological processes, particularly in the context of health and disease.

This drive led me to pursue an academic path, studying biology and ultimately culminating in a PhD in molecular biology with a focus on virology, immunology, and cell signaling. Subsequently, I embarked on a Postdoctoral fellowship, where I had the opportunity to further expand my expertise.

My transition into the biotech industry marked a pivotal moment in my career. I was entrusted with establishing and leading an oncology research laboratory. One of my proudest accomplishments during this time was overseeing a phase 1 clinical study in oncology, a testament to my dedication and expertise in the field. In the end, I assumed full responsibility for all three development projects within the company.

Driven by a desire to make a lasting impact in the biopharmaceutical landscape, I subsequently co-founded Immunic, where I currently serve as Chief Scientific Officer. At Immunic, our mission is to develop next-generation selective oral therapies focused on offering patients with chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases new and clinically meaningful treatment options.

What challenges did you face - as a woman or otherwise - along the way and what is the most valuable lesson you have learned?

Reflecting on an encounter with my former boss, I recall a statement that, while likely intended as a compliment, shed light on the persistent challenges surrounding gender perceptions in the scientific world. "You think like a man, I like it," my boss remarked at the end of an intense, fruitful meeting, inadvertently highlighting the notion that certain approaches are associated with one gender over another. This experience served as a valuable lesson: not to take such remarks personally. Instead, it reinforced the importance of fostering an inclusive environment where diverse perspectives are celebrated and valued.

Moving forward, I am committed to promoting inclusivity and diversity in science, advocating for equal opportunities and recognition for all individuals, regardless of gender. By embracing the unique strengths and perspectives that each person brings to the table, we can create a more vibrant and innovative scientific community that thrives on collaboration and mutual respect.

What ignites your passion in your current role?

My way of working involves diving deep into different areas, aiming to understand them completely. This means I am always learning, seeking advice from specialists in particular fields, and absorbing their knowledge and experience. By doing so, I am able to connect the dots between pieces of knowledge, synthesizing a comprehensive understanding of complex concepts.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is the opportunity to translate scientific discoveries into benefits for patients. I work hard to connect scientific ideas with real-life benefits, aiming for a future where everyone can live healthier and happier lives.

What is your current work ethos/style?

In our team, curiosity and open-mindedness are not just encouraged, they are celebrated! We believe in the power of diverse perspectives and the value of robust discussion to drive innovation and progress. By creating a space where we freely share ideas and welcome different viewpoints, we empower our team to achieve collective excellence and drive meaningful impact in everything we do. 

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