Prof Kai-Michael Toellner Dr. rer. nat., Dipl.-Biol.

Image of Kai Toellner

Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy
Professor of Adaptive Immunology

Contact details

Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy
College of Medical and Dental Sciences
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

Kai Toellner is Professor of Adaptive Immunology at the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy and the Cancer and Immunology and Immunotherapy Centre Birmingham. He studies how lymphocytes differentiate in response to pathogens or vaccines, and how this leads to the generation of protective antibodies and long term immune memory. He has published over 70 research papers in international journals and received major grants from the European Union, Pfizer, the MRC and BBSRC.


  • Dr. rer. nat., Biochemistry “Studies on the Physiology of Follicular Dendritic Cells and Germinal Centre T cells” Forschungszentrum Borstel, University of Hohenheim, 1994
  • Dipl.-Biol. Biology 1990


Prof. Kai-Michael Toellner studied biology at the University of Hohenheim, Germany, where he had his first contact with immunology in the laboratory of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, Katharinenhospital Stuttgart, working on new flow cytometry techniques to measure lymphocytes in cerebrospinal fluid. From there he moved to the Forschungszentrum Borstel, Germany, for a PhD project on the regulation of germinal centre reactions by T lymphocytes and cytokines under the mentorship of Prof. Johannes Gerdes.

In 1994, Kai Toellner started as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Immunology, University of Birmingham, initially under the mentorship of Prof. Ian MacLennan and later with his own research team. 

His main interests are cellular interactions and differentiation processes that happen in lymphoid tissues during cellular responses to vaccines or pathogens. During these processes lymphocytes differentiate to become high affinity effector cells that will produce pathogen-specific neutralizing antibody and form immunological memory that can protect us over a long time. Processes studied are the role of cytokines produced by T lymphocytes and stroma onto the selection and differentiation of B lymphocytes, the role of antibody and B cell receptor signals on the selection of B cells in germinal centres, and which signals regulate output of effector B cells from the germinal centre, i.e. cytokines, chemokines, and accessory cells regulating differentiation of high affinity plasma cells and memory B cells.

He has active collaborations with several labs in the UK, Germany, Italy, and Australia. 


Teaching Programmes

Postgraduate supervision

Kai is interested in supervising doctoral research students in the following areas:

  • Signals regulating selection of B cells in germinal centres
  • Diurnal effects on antibody affinity maturation
  • Signals leading to differentiation of plasma cells 
  • Regulation of B cell migration by chemokines

If you are interested in studying any of these subject areas please contact Kai on the contact details above, or for any general doctoral research enquiries, please email: or call +44 (0)121 414 5005.

For a full list of available Doctoral Research opportunities, please visit our Doctoral Research programme listings.   





Selection of B cells in germinal centres

Most antibody responses involve affinity maturation. This process occurs in germinal centres (GCs), microanatomical structures in lymphoid tissues where B lymphocytes mutate and mature their immunoglobulin V-genes. Affinity maturation is thought to be achieved by Darwinian evolution with repeated cycles of Ig hypermutation followed by B cell interaction with the antigen that is on follicular dendritic cells. This is then followed by stimulation from follicular T helper cells. We are studying how antigen, antibodies, T cells and other accessory cells in germinal centre interact with B cells and provide stimulation or barriers that lead to selection of higher affinity B cells. Main focus of this work is to understand the action of vaccines, and to understand processes that become defunctional during ageing.

Regulation of immunoglobulin class switching and plasma cell differentiation

B cells not only mutate their antibody genes after contact with antigen, they also rearrange these genes to produce antibody switch variants with same specificity, but different function. This process is called immunoglobulin class switching and happens in B cells at different stages and in different microanatomical compartments during an antibody response. The end product of B cell differentiation is the plasma cell – a cellular factory specialised in producing large amounts of antibody. Similar microenvironments and signals to the ones that induce immunoglobulin class switching also regulate plasma cell differentiation.

We are trying to understand the molecular signals that lead to these processes and the cellular interactions that provide signals for immunoglobulin class switching or plasma cell differentiation.

T helper lymphocyte differentiation

T helper cells are the main cells that interact with B cells and regulate antibody responses, having a role not only in the initiation of B cell differentiation, but also for long term immunological memory. We are interested in the differentiation of specialized subsets of T cells regulating B cell differentiation, and in the development and distribution of memory T cells throughout different microanatomical compartments.


Zhang, Y., L. Garcia-Ibanez, G. Brown, K.-M. Toellner. (2017). Detecting gene expression in lymphoid microenvironments by laser microdissection and quantitative RT-PCR., Germinal Centers: Methods and Protocols, Springer Protocols, Human Press. Methods in Molecular Biology, 1623, pp. 21-36

Toellner, K.-M., D. M.-Y. Sze, Y. Zhang (2017). What are the primary limitations in B cell affinity maturation? How much affinity maturation can we drive with vaccination? A role for antibody feedback? Immune Memory and Vaccines: Great Debates, Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, published online

Vinuesa CG, Toellner K-M and Papa I (2016) "Extrafollicular antibody responses in health and disease"; In: Encyclopedia of Immunobiology, Elsevier, Ed. in Chief: M. J. H. Ratcliffe. Vol. 3, “Activation of the Immune System”, pp. 208-215.

Zhang Y, Garcia-Ibanez L and Toellner KM (2016) Regulation of germinal centre B cell differentiationImmunol Rev 270(1): pp.8-19

Long JE, Drayson MT, Taylor AE, Toellner KM, Lord JM and Phillips AC (2016) Morning vaccination enhances antibody response over afternoon vaccination: a cluster-randomised trial. Vaccine 34(24): pp. 2679–85

Bénézech C, Luu NT, Walker JA, Kruglov AA, Loo Y, Nakamura K, Zhang Y, Nayar S, Jones LH, Flores-Langarica A, McIntosh A, Marshall J, Barone F, Besra G, Miles K, Allen JE, Gray M, Kollias G, Cunningham AF, Withers DR, Toellner KM, Jones ND, Veldhoen M, Nedospasov SA, McKenzie AN and Caamaño JH1 (2015) Inflammation-induced formation of fat-associated lymphoid clustersNat Immunol 16(8):819-28

Flores-Langarica A, Bobat S, Marshall JL, Yam-Puc JC, Cook CN, Serre K, Kingsley RA, Flores-Romo L, Uematsu S, Akira S, Henderson IR, Toellner KM and Cunningham AF (2015) Soluble flagellin co-immunization attenuates Th1 priming to Salmonella and clearance by modulating dendritic cell activation and cytokine production. Eur J Immunol 45(8):2299-311

Barone F, Nayar S, Campos J, Cloake T, Withers DR, Toellner KM, Zhang Y, Fouser L, Fisher B, Bowman S, Rangel-Moreno J, Garcia-Hernandez Mde L, Randall TD, Lucchesi D, Bombardieri M, Pitzalis C, Luther SA and Buckley CD (2015) IL22 regulates lymphoid chemokine production and assembly of tertiary lymphoid organs. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 112(35):11024-9

Zhang Y., M. Meyer-Hermann, L. George, M. T. Figge, M. Khan, M. Goodall, S. P. Young, A. Reynolds, F. Falciani, A. Waisman, C. A. Notley, M. R. Ehrenstein, M. Kosco-Vilbois, K.-M. Toellner (2013). Germinal centre B cells govern their own fate via antibody feedback. Journal of Experimental Medicine (210). pp.457-464.

Meyer-Hermann M., E. Mohr, N. Pelletier, Y. Zhang, G. D. Victora, K.-M. Toellner,. (2012). A novel theory of germinal center B cell selection, division, and exit. Cell Reports, (26), pp.162-174.

Marshall J. L., Y. Zhang, L. Pallan, M.-C. Hsu, M. Khan, A. Cunningham, I. C. M. MacLennan, K.-M. Toellner (2011), Early B blasts acquire a capacity for Ig class switch recombination that is lost as they become plasmablasts, European Journal of Immunology, 41, pp. 3506-3512.

Zotos D., J. M. Coquet, Y. Zhang, A. Light, K. D’Costa, A. Kallies, L. M. Corcoran, D. I. Godfrey, K.-M. Toellner, M. J. Smyth, S. L. Nutt, D. M. Tarlinton (2010), IL-21 Regulates Germinal Center B Cell Differentiation and Proliferation Through a B Cell Intrinsic Mechanism. Journal of Experimental Medicine, (207), pp. 365-78                                                       

Luther S. A., K. Serre, A. F. Cunningham, M. Khan, H. Acha-Orbea, I. C. M. MacLennan, K.-M. Toellner. (2007). Recirculating CD4 memory T cells mount rapid secondary responses without major contributions from follicular CD4 effectors and B cells. European Journal of Immunology, (37), pp. 1476-1484                                                    

Toellner K.-M., W. E. Jenkinson, D. R. Taylor, M. Khan, D. M.-Y. Sze, C. G. Vinuesa, I. C. M. MacLennan, (2002). Low-level hypermutation in T cell-independent germinal centers compared with high mutation rates associated with T cell-dependent germinal centers. Journal of Experimental Medicine, (195), pp. 383-389