Doctoral Candidates

DoC 1

Leonard Bellersheim


Hello everyone,

I am Leonard Bellersheim, a medical student at the University of Regensburg and currently pursuing my MD at the Leibniz Institute for Immunotherapy (LIT), specializing in molecular biology and immunological processes. Originally from Munich, my academic journey brought me to Regensburg, where I started my scientific career as a student assistant in Prof. Beckhove´s Lab.

My initial role involved supporting the group’s work with bioinformatic analysis, focusing primarily on NGS data and differential gene expression in the context of cancer and transplant immunology. As part of my current MD project, I am investigating immune resistance genes in liver transplant rejection, with a specific emphasis on understanding the interaction between effector T-cells and hepatocytes. Throughout these years, I have acquired valuable experience in hands-on laboratory work and bioinformatic data analysis. My expertise spans cancer and transplantation immunology, as well as molecular biology, with a focus on immune-regulating genes.

Supported by an internship at the transplantation department of the LMU Munich, my fascination for immunology, especially transplantation immunology, is growing day by day. As a result, I am constantly looking for new challenges and scientific questions in this field and was therefore fascinated by the concept of exTra.

I am excited about the prospect of diving into the complexity of T cell metabolism during my doctoral research project at King’s College London (KCL) under the guidance of my primary supervisor, Dr. Niloufar Safinia. The primary objective of my research is to decipher the impact of Extracorporeal Photopheresis (ECP) on T cell metabolism, focusing on both effector T cells (Teff) and CD4+ FoxP3+ regulatory T cells (Tregs) and to correlate these findings with clinical effects in ECP-treated patients.

Starting date: 1st September 2024

Hello everybody!

My name is Inês Morgado, I am 25 years old and I am from Portugal. I graduated in Biochemistry at the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the University of Coimbra. During my bachelor’s, I participated in the Erasmus+ program where I developed my internship project in the Laboratory Virus-Cell Interaction at CIBIO-University of Trento, Italy. This bachelor’s internship was an extremely enriching experience and only reinforced that this was the path that I intended to follow.

Therefore, I started my Master’s program in Biomedical Research at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Coimbra and developed my master’s project at the i3S-Institute of Health Innovation and Research in Porto. My master’s thesis project aimed at understanding the biological advantages given by an adhesion molecule in ovarian cancer cell lines, particularly in terms of systemic dissemination and homing, and unraveling its potential as a possible biomarker and tool for identifying peritoneal metastases in ovarian cancer patients.

These experiences reinforced my interest in science and highlighted the impact and importance of translational research in human health. For this reason, I decided to apply for the PhD project “Modulation of NK cell and MRC responses after ECP therapy” at Prof. Dr. Robert Zeiser’s laboratory in Freiburg Germany.

My PhD project will focus on characterizing myeloid regulatory cells (MRC) following extracorporeal  photopheresis (ECP) therapy, with a focus on identifying immunosuppressive molecules. The project aims to evaluate the immunoregulatory activity of these molecules through adoptive transfer into secondary recipients. The findings will be further validated in patient samples by analyzing MRC, NK, and T cells in the peripheral blood of ECP-treated patients. We are interested in identifying a correlation between MRC frequencies and responses to ECP therapy.

I am thrilled to join the exTra consortium, which I believe will be a great opportunity and enriching experience for me, both personally and professionally.

Starting date: 15th November 2023

DoC 2

Inês Morgado


DoC 3

Panagiotis Parsonidis


ECP induction therapy after lung transplantation

I am Panagiotis Parsonidis from Greece. I got my B.Sc. (Hons) Degree in Biology with specialization in Molecular Biology, Genetics and Biotechnology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and my Master’s Degree in Food and Drink Innovation (Packaging and Sustainability) at the University of Abertay, Dundee, United Kingdom. After university, I had a big decision to make: research or work experience in industry? I chose to combine those two parameters and started working as a researcher at the R&D department of a private company that specializes in cancer research. Currently, I am a Molecular Biologist with over six years of professional experience, specializing in cell-based assays, in vitro assays, clinical research, drug discovery and laboratory operations. I have a great history of coordinating with laboratory teams to execute complex research projects and strong experience in Immuno-Oncology. Moreover, I have advanced experience working with primary human cells and the development of ATMPs for cancer immunotherapy. I have published articles that are related to adoptive cellular therapies and I have prepared the draft of two patents for cellular therapy products, the Investigational Medicinal Product Dossier (IMPD), the Investigational Brochure (IB), and the protocol for a Phase 1/2 clinical trial of a cancer cell therapy. I gained classification from the CAT of EMA as CTMPs (ATMPs) for 5 immune cell populations against cancer.

In the exTra project I will be a PhD student (Doc3) at Medical University in Vienna under the supervision of Thomas Wekerle, MD. My research will focus on the follow up testing of patients who have received ECP therapy after lung transplantation. My work will focus on two main topics: the gene expression profile in PBMCs after prophylactic ECP treatment and the analysis of soluble factors released from stimulated PBMCs of ECP-treated lung transplant recipients. The overall goal is to correlate those factors and genes identified with long-term outcome after lung transplantation. The majority of my work will be performed at the Division of Transplantation, Department of General Surgery at the Medical University of Vienna which is affiliated with Vienna General Hospital (AKH).

As a result of my work we will get a more detailed picture on the long term benefit of prophylactic ECP therapy and identify biomarkers that could have clinical benefit. Based on these data, we would like to optimize the personalized treatment approach and as a long term effect, implementing these results in clinical patient care will hopefully improve survival of lung transplants.

Being a part of this exTra project offers a great opportunity for me to engage in research while being a member of a high standard scientific consortium. During my professional experience, I was always looking for opportunities to get involved with innovative projects and the specific projects about ECP therapy are offering the potential for great innovations.

Working in a new laboratory environment and communicate with other researchers is something I am looking forward to in order to be evolved as a professional and as a person. Participating in the exTra consortium is giving me the opportunity to join international teams and to visit recognized universities and companies that can open new horizons in my research career.

Great teams are made by great individuals and collaborating with so talented and passionate new researchers is once in a lifetime experience.

Starting date: 2nd November 2023

Unveiling the effect of ECP on B cells

I am Filipe from the charming Portuguese city of Oporto. I studied bioengineering with a specialization in molecular bioengineering at the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Porto. During this journey, I had the opportunity to develop research work at the Institute for Research and Innovation in Health (i3S), in Porto, focusing on the communication between immune cells, particularly Dendritic Cells, and Mesenchymal Stem/Stromal Cells through paracrine signaling in the context of bone regeneration.

Just as colleagues communicate through email or Whatsapp, cells utilize Extracellular Vesicles (EV) to convey messages to other cells without direct contact. EV can enclose a variety of biologically relevant molecules that, upon uptake, can trigger specific cellular responses. At i3S, my primary research centered on assessing whether EV released by Dendritic Cells could enhance the recruitment of Mesenchymal Stem/Stromal Cells to bone injury sites, thereby accelerating the healing process.

Upon completing my MSc degree, I recognized my growing interest in immunology, therefore, in June of 2023, I took a leap into unknown canals, and moved to Amsterdam to work as a research technician at Sanquin to perform research towards understanding the impact of Dendritic Cells and T Cells interaction on B Cells phenotype. Continuing at Sanquin, I have transitioned to the exTra project as a PhD student, specifically in the DoC4 – Prevention of de novo donor-specific antibody production by ECP. In this role, I aim to dissect the direct effects of ECP treatment on B cell phenotype, activation, differentiation and antibody production using in vitro models, in minimalist cultures as well as T-B cell co-cultures and 3D cultures. Additionally, I anticipate contributing insights into how components of photoapheresates influence the fate of B cells, potentially informing future clinical indications for ECP in solid organ transplantation.

Being part of the exTra project is an exciting opportunity to engage in scientific collaboration with a diverse and committed group of people from around the world, which will be beneficial to achieve the goal of this Consortium. I am confident that our collective contributions will advance our understanding of ECP, fostering mutual learning throughout this enriching journey.

Starting date: 15th November 2023

DoC 4

Filipe Nogueira


DoC 5

Michael Nicoli


My name is Michael Nicoli, and I am from Italy. My academic journey started at the University of Ferrara, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology. I then moved to the University of Milan for my master’s in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, specializing in drug research and development.

During my master’s program, I had the opportunity to undertake a year-long internship at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Dr. Luca Colnaghi’s laboratory. There, I focused on studying the molecular mechanisms underlying various neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental disorders. Right after completing my master’s, I secured a temporary fellowship at IFOM, where I investigated one of the potential apoptotic escape mechanisms in breast cancer cells.

These experiences have instilled in me a strong determination to dedicate my career to research. However, I felt the need to focus on a more translational type of research, leading me to apply for the exTra program.

At IDIBAPS, my PhD research project will focus on investigating the potential of Extracorporeal Photopheresis (ECP) in the context of kidney transplantation. Concretely, we will conduct a clinical study to evaluate ECP’s efficacy in preventing antibody-mediated rejection (ABMR) among high-risk adult patients. Furthermore, our objectives include delineating the impact of ECP on the functionality of B cells, regulatory B cells, and follicular T helper cells, by closely monitoring the immune responses of the patients involved. Ultimately, our study aims to ascertain the practicality of employing this cellular therapy in kidney transplantation and to explore possible adjustments that can be made to augment its overall effectiveness.

Being part of this project will allow me to deepen my understanding of the clinical realm while maintaining a focus on the research and development of innovative therapies. This approach provides me with a comprehensive perspective on the processes involved in the development of new drugs. Simultaneously, being a part of a doctoral network, such as exTra will afford me the opportunity to grow both professionally and personally. It involves stepping out of my comfort zone and acquainting myself with diverse academic and industrial realities beyond my own, contributing to a well-rounded and enriching experience.

Starting date: 15th November 2023

My name is Sophia and I’m from Lecce, Italy.

With the aim of understanding more about Molecular Mechanisms of Human diseases I pursued a BSc and a MSc degrees in Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at the Università degli Studi di Firenze, Italy. During my studies I developed a genuine interest for immunology and immunomodulatory therapies. Thanks to my two University’s internships I had the chance to investigate the role of  Tryptophan-2,3-Dioxygenase in melanoma and the role of Carbonic Anhydrases in the metabolic reprogramming of prostate cancer. My academic background gave me experience with a broad range of molecular and cellular biology techniques, including working with cells culture, flow cytometry analysis,  analysis of cells metabolism and confocal microscopy investigations.

After my studies, in my previous role I have been onboarded as part of the medical crew on Cruise Vessels as Hospital Laboratory Technician, in order to perform and analyze Human nasal samples for the Sars-Cov-2 RNA detection and I actively collaborated with the medical team in the management of positive COVID-19 Cases. This position allowed me to work in an international environment and helped me to further enhance my flexibility skills, my adaptability skills and my teamwork skills.

During my PhD in Immunology at the Medizinische Universität Wien (MUW, AKH General Hospital of Vienna) I will investigate the therapeutic potential of the immunomodulatory therapy “ExtraCorporeal Photopheresis” (ECP) to prevent or retard functional decline of Lung transplantation (LuTx) in recipients with de novo Dono Specific Antibodies (dnDSA);
I will characterize the circulating miRNome in plasma of ECP-treated LuTx recipients compared to untreated controls;
I will investigate the effect of ECP treatment on gene expression profiles in PBMCs from LuTx recipients;
I will characterize the composition and level of activation of immune cell subsets over time in LuTx recipients receiving ECP compared to randomized controls;
And I will work with bioinformatics experts from MUW in order to perform cross-platform computational analyses of data collected from our patients in order to identify immunological features that predict favorable clinical outcomes.

I strongly believe that this PhD project and exTra Consortium (to which I belong) will give me the tools and the training that I need to succeed in my larger goal to make my contribution to scientific research and to collaborate to find possible solutions for an improvement of patients’s quality of life.

It is a great opportunity to improve professionally, to learn new techniques and to actively collaborate with all the researchers of exTra Consortium, in a challenging and international environment where each member shares a deep interest in science development.

Starting date: 13th November 2023

DoC 6

Sophia Alemanno


DoC 7

Julia Stępień


I am Julia Stępień from Poland. My academic journey led me to pursue Master of Biomedical Engineering with a specialization in Biomaterials Engineering at AGH University of Technology and Science in Cracow. During last semester of Masters studies I left from Cracow and joined research group at i3s Institute in Porto to conduct research for my Masters project. I dedicated five months to the exploration of the properties and healing potential of a drug delivery system that I developed as a healing agent for burn wounds. Given the pivotal role of macrophages in burn wounds healing, my research was primarily guided by these cells. I was studying phenotypic switch induced by the quercetin – natural anti-inflammatory substance – used as an active substance in drug delivery system in the form of particles.

In the exTra consortium, I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. at the University Hospital in Regensburg. My project revolves around characterizing the influence of ECP (extracorporeal photopheresis) after organ transplantation on ischemia-reperfusion injury (IRI). To achieve this, my research plan is divided into four key areas:

  • Substantiating the therapeutic efficacy in patients,
  • Identifying the cell death mechanisms occurring in ECP samples,
  • Investigating the impact of the immune response on parenchymal liver cells,
  • Defining correlation between IRI biomarkers and ECP-treated cells biomarkers.

Ultimately, this research aims to characterize unrecognized mechanisms of ECP treatment as a beneficial post-transplant immunological therapy, with a specific focus on its influence on ischemia-reperfusion injury. The study also seeks to define the cell death mechanisms in ECP products and their impact on immune cells, representing an unexplored area in current scientific understanding.

Translational medicine was one of my biggest interests since few years so being a part of this consortium gives me great opportunity to develop my passion for this field. Working in a hospital environment allows me to have direct contact with patients and observe the course of treatment, enhancing my understanding of therapy and its associated challenges.

Working abroad in international environment was my goal since a long time, because I believe that’s how we can develop the most. I am thrilled to have the chance to meet like-minded people who share similar interests.

Starting date: 1st November 2023

Hi there!
My name is Fabiola Arella and I was born in Verona, Italy. My academic journey started at the University of Parma, where I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Biology.

My passion turned out to be in understanding how biology and biological interactions could potentiate life or disease. Therefore, I decided to pursue a master’s degree program in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Parma.

Determined to pursue a career in research, I was awarded a full scholarship for an internship. Therefore, at the University of Lisbon I joined Dr. André Santos’s to perform my final degree thesis. My project was focused on understanding the efficacy of D-lactate in modulating macrophage cell lipid metabolism in NAFLD (Non- Alcoholic Fat Liver Disease).

During my master internship, I had the opportunity to collaborate with an immunologist, Professor David Pires. Under his supervision, I performed ex-vivo studies with PMCs by using Flow Cytometry. Hence my fascination with and enthusiasm for immunology began, and this is the main reason I decided to apply for the PhD position “ECP as a bridging therapy before liver transplantation” at Prof. Dr. Hutchinson’s laboratory.

The goal of this project is to understand better and exploit the tissue-reparative macrophages response by developing ECP as a pre-transplant “bridging” therapy for critically unwell patients on the liver transplant waiting list.

As an aspiring researcher in the field of immunology, I firmly believe that unraveling the effects of ECP on recipients’ immune responses against transplanted organs will pave the way for personalized and more effective transplant therapies.

I look forward to embarking on this scientific journey and being part of the exTra network. I strongly believe that this project offers an opportunity for both personal and professional growth, providing a chance to collaborate with other early-stage researchers from all over Europe.

Starting date: 1st November 2023

DoC 8

Fabiola Arella


DoC 9

Hendrik Veltman


A scientific journey from the Netherlands to Barcelona

Hi everybody!

My name is Hendrik Veltman, I am 27 years old and I grew up in the Netherlands. As one of my favorite courses in Highschool, biology has always fascinated me. So naturally, after graduating, I choose to do my bachelor’s in Biomedical Laboratory Sciences. Besides gaining valuable hands-on laboratory experience during this program, I also conducted two internships abroad. First at the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami, and subsequently at the Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes at the University of Colorado. These opportunities taught me how to navigate in academics, and drew me deeper into the realm of science.

This growing excitement for research made me decide to start a master’s in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Groningen. After finishing my courses, I moved to Amsterdam where I conducted my graduation internship at the Amsterdam Medical Center under the supervision of Prof. Nicole Juffermans, and PhD-candidate Daan Brink. We investigated the effects of different resuscitation strategies on the immune system and endothelial injury in a pneumo-sepsis rat model. Here I developed a strong interest in research with a focus on clinical translation.

Contributing to this type of research, aiming to improve patient care, is something that I find hugely fulfilling. Therefore I was filled with joy when I heard I was accepted as part of the Extra consortium under the supervision of Prof. Eva Martínez-Cáseres and Dr. Maria Iglesias-Escudero at the Germans Trias I Pujol institute.

During my PhD, I will focus on establishing pharmacodynamic markers for extracorporeal photopheresis (ECP) therapy, used in organ transplantation.  Currently, there is no protocol to assess the efficacy of ECP. Thus, the aim of the study is to create a standardized assay that can be used in clinical practice. I will furthermore delve into the effects of ECP on different immune cell responses and tolerogenicity, to better understand the pharmacological effects of the treatment.

I am thrilled to be part of the Extra consortium which will give me the opportunity to work with,  and learn from, a diverse team with people of different nationalities and professional backgrounds. I cannot think of a better environment to develop my academic skills and grow as a person.

Starting date: 4th January 2024

A self-driven researcher who ECUals curiosity and perseverance

My name is Jorge and I am from Quito, Ecuador. My curiosity and passion for science started at a very early age and encouraged me to major in biotechnology engineering during my bachelor’s. After university, I had the chance to work for two years as a lab technician in a molecular identification laboratory, which gave me hands-on experience in molecular and immunological techniques. Motivated to provide solutions for unmet clinical needs of human diseases, I applied and got selected in the Erasmus Mundus’ International Master in Innovative Medicine (IMIM), a joint master’s that took me to study in Heidelberg University (Germany) and Groningen University (Netherlands). During my master’s internships and lectures, I gained more practical experience in state-of-the-art cellular and molecular biology techniques and got captivated by the potential of immunotherapies to harness immune responses and tackle diseases. This surging interest and my desire to contribute to translational medicine triggered my ambition to pursue a PhD in the field of immunotherapies.

My project at University Hospital Erlangen (Germany) will be focused on identifying soluble factors elicited by ECP that promote transplant tolerance. For this, I will first identify factors of interest within the secretome of PBMCs of healthy donors after ECP. Then I will characterize the immunoregulatory capacity of these factors on different cell populations. The ultimate goal is to validate relevant findings in vivo with clinical samples from transplant recipients under ECP therapy.

As results of my project, I expect to decipher the mechanisms by which factors-of-interest influence specific leucocyte populations and thus, to advance our understanding of the immune-regulatory mode of action of ECP. These factors might also serve as novel biomarkers of potency or therapeutic targets. With these experiments, I hope to make a significant contribution in the field of ECP with the aim of improving the quality of life of patients undergoing solid organ transplantation.

The exTra network offers a unique platform to boost my career in science by allowing me to take part in relevant training schools and practical courses as well as secondment opportunities with the industrial sector to bridge the gap between basic and translational research. Moreover, being part of a consortium gives me the opportunity to collaborate with other motivated researchers from different backgrounds. Working as a multi-disciplinary team will allow not only for mutual support but also for my personal and professional growth. For these reasons, I am completely thrilled to be part of the exTra consortium. I believe that such a stimulating and international network will build solid foundations for my future as a biomedical researcher.

Starting date: 1st December 2023

DoC 10

Jorge Garcia


DoC 11

Clémentine Tocco


A biotechnology engineer with a passion for research and immunology

My name is Clémentine and I am a freshly graduated engineer in biotechnolgy from Toulouse, France. I’ve always been very interested in science in general and I’m guided in life by a strong sens of,curiosity. During my years of study, I built up my career path by seeking to satisfy my curiosity for science and by training for a profession that to my eyes has meaning and is useful to society. So, after starting out with a more general engineering degree, I went on to specialize in a Master’s degree in the field of biotechnology applied to medical health. During my studies, I was particularly interested by the subjects of immunology and genetics applied to medicine.

Throughout my Master’s degree, I did several internships in health research, including one in oncology for the French National Institute of Health (INSERM) at the Saint Antoine Hospital in Paris, during which I studied the link between patients’ immune responses and their cancer survival rates. These internships confirmed that research in medical science was the career path I wanted to take.

Before the end of my Master, I therefore started looking for a PhD opportunity in line with my personal aspirations, and was fortunate enough to be selected as a PhD student in the exTra project to study the modulation of immune responses in patients with chronic kidney disease using extracorporeal photopheresis methods, in hopes of reducing the risk of transplant rejection for these patients.

With this subject of study, I will be delighted to participate in the progress of this European project and to work in a team with the ten other doctoral students constituting the consortium. In the longer term, I hope that this project will help perfect the use of extracorporeal photopheresis and improve the lives of patients with chronic kidney disease.

Starting date: 11th April 2024