Otto Research Group

Our team is pursuing novel, alternative approaches to treat childhood cancer. Our research includes areas such as adoptive immunotherapies, stem cell graft engineering and molecular targeting of cancers with nanoparticles and small anti-cancer molecules.


γδ T Cells for Adoptive Cancer Immunotherapies

Cancer immunotherapy uses components of the immune system to fight cancer. It is a treatment modality which attempts to harness the immune system to recognize attack and kill malignant cells. Immunotherapies can consist of the administration of tumor-specific antibodies, cytokines, or the infusion or transfer of immune cells, such as Natural Killer (NK) cells or tumor-specific, genetically modified T cells such as chimeric antigen receptor-modified T cells (CARs), to name a few approaches. A cell population our lab is specifically interested in using in the context of cancer immunotherapy is γδ T cells. γδ T cells only comprise about 3-6% of the human peripheral lymphocytes but are important for the primary response to infectious agents. We and others have shown that γδ T cells also have potent anti-leukemic and anti-tumor effects and appear to play a crucial role in cancer immunosurveillance. Interestingly, γδ T cells do not cause graft-versus-host disease and seem therefore specifically suitable for autologous or allogeneic immunotherapy approaches. Our lab is therefore pursuing research with regards to the biology of γδ T cell activation, in vivo and ex vivo expansion and activation for use in adoptive cancer immunotherapies.

Stem Cell Graft Design

Allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (allo-HSCT) is an established, successful treatment modality for a variety of malignant and nonmalignant conditions such as high-risk leukemias and lymphomas and some otherwise fatal conditions. With current allogeneic transplant regimen, the prolonged period of profound immune deficiency which occurs after transplant until the immune system has functionally recovered leaves the patient at high risk for life-threatening infections. More importantly, it likely prevents the donor-derived immune system from mediating a critical graft-versus-leukemia/tumor effect at a crucial time when minimal residual disease could potentially be eradicated, and the patient cured. Therefore, our lab is working on the pre-clinical as well as translational design of grafts and transplant regimens that lead to fast engraftment, but also provide the patient immediately with potent and activated effector cells such as NK cell or γδ T cells to deliver a strong anti-tumor benefit and protect from potentially deadly infections.


The evolution of nanotechnology offers a new dimension to tumor-targeting strategies.  Nanoparticles have gained increasing interest for medical applications due to features such as unusual optical or magnetic properties, high stability and biological compatibility, controllable morphology and size dispersion, and chemical surface functionalization. One of the greatest promises of tumor-targeted nanoparticles is their multifunctionality, i.e. the possibility of simultaneous imaging, drug delivery, and other therapeutic and diagnostic applications, such as localized hyperthermia elicited by alternating magnetic fields. For cancer treatment applications this approach requires either direct injection of particles into the tumor, or more practically and elegantly, the use of molecular probes, such as antibodies, that specifically guide the nanoparticles to the cancerous cell. Our team’s initiative is to develop a nanotechnology-based platform to treat pediatric cancers, specifically neuroblastoma, which is one of the most common pediatric solid tumors with a high mortality rate in advanced-stage disease.

Anti-cancer Phospholipid Ether Analogs for Molecular Targeting of Pediatric Solid Tumors

NM404, a novel phospholipid ether analog developed at UW, is a promising, tumor-targeting anti-cancer agent that interferes with important signaling pathways in neuroblastoma and other cancers. Radiolabeled derivatives can be used for diagnostic imaging and molecular radiotherapy. Our lab is investigating promising strategies to integrate NM404 in current pediatric cancer treatment approaches. Our preliminary data in a variety of solid tumors are promising, demonstrating anti-cancer effects also in rodent xenograft models, while maintaining a very favorable toxicity profile.

Lab News

  • ‘Dream Team’ recognized with AACR Team Science Award

    The St. Baldrick’s Foundation-Stand Up 2 Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team, which includes pediatric faculty members Christian Capitini, MD, associate professor, Ken DeSantes, MD, professor, Mario Otto, MD, PhD, associate professor, and Paul Sondel, MD, PhD, professor, was selected for the American Association …

  • Pediatric ‘Dream Team’ Members and Others Recognized with SITC’s Team Science Award

    Congratulations to Christian Capitini, MD, Kenneth DeSantes, MD, Amy Erbe-Gurel, PhD, Jacquelyn Hank, PhD, Anna Huttenlocher, MD, Mario Otto, MD, PhD, Alexander Rakhmilevich, MD, PhD, Paul Sondel, MD, PhD, and researchers at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center who were recently recognized …

  • What We Published In May 2020

    Al Dhaheri N, Wu N, Zhao S, Wu Z, Blank RD, Zhang J, Raggio C, Halanski M, Shen J, Noonan K, Qiu G, Nemeth B, Sund S, Dunwoodie SL, Chapman G, Glurich I, Steiner RD, Wohler …

  • Pediatrics Research Week 2020 Abstract Book Now Available

    The Pediatrics Research Week 2020 Abstract Book is now available. University of Wisconsin Department of Pediatrics faculty, staff, fellows and residents submitted over 50 research abstracts for the virtual conference, which is taking place May 26-29, 2020. …

  • What We Published in April 2020

    1. Ascierto PA, Fox B, Urba W, Anderson AC, Atkins MB, Borden EC, Brahmer J, Butterfield LH, Cesano A, Chen D, de Gruijl T, Dillman RO, Drake CG, Emens LA, Gajewski TF, Gulley JL, Stephen …

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