Assistant Professor Jacob Elmer Earns NSF CAREER Grant for Gene Therapy Research

The Elmer family: Liam (2 ½), Jacob, Trisha and newest addition, Riley.
The Elmer family: Liam (2 ½), Jacob, Trisha and newest addition, Riley.

It has been a very good year for Villanova University’s Jacob Elmer, PhD, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering.  In July, he received $300,000 from the National Science Foundation to streamline the production of genetically engineered T cells to treat leukemia patients. In December, the National Institutes of Health awarded him $254,000—part of a $432,000 grant with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—to study earthworm hemoglobin as a potential blood substitute. And in late January, while on paternity leave for the birth of his daughter Riley, Dr. Elmer learned that he had received the highly prestigious, five-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER award.

Green Beginnings

Dr. Elmer’s success story begins on his father’s 40-acre pine tree farm in Illinois. There, from the age of 7 until he left for college, he was responsible for the family’s acre-plus vegetable garden. Attracted to the problem-solving aspects of the task, he began learning more about the plants and their biology as a high school student. “I reached a point where I knew I wanted to do more than put seeds in the ground. I wanted to understand how the plants worked; what you could do to make them grow even better.”

His interest in plant biology and physiology continued at Missouri University of Science & Technology where he was a dual major in Biology and Chemical Engineering. “I figured I’d have a career in agriculture,” he says. But an internship with NASA— working on bioregenerative life support systems—drew Dr. Elmer to research, which put him on a path to academia.

Establishing Research Interests

While pursuing his PhD at The Ohio State University, Dr. Elmer found himself studying blood substitutes, part of which involved genetic engineering of E. coli. It was as a postdoctoral researcher at Arizona State University that he began gene therapy research, a field which could potentially cure hundreds of genetic disorders by replacing or supplementing mutated genes.  After more than a year spent testing drugs that could improve the process, Dr. Elmer’s future research came into focus. “I came to the realization that so many people were working on gene delivery—getting the gene inside the cell—that I was going to concentrate on the fate of the gene once it’s inside, where cellular defenses work against the process.” That was the motivation for his first NSF grant in 2014, “Manipulating Epigenetic Mechanisms to Enhance Transgene Expression,” which looked at what happens to the gene inside the nucleus. His CAREER grant is the second iteration of that research. “Now we’re looking at the fate of that gene when it’s still in the cytoplasm, before it reaches the nucleus.”

CAREER Grant

As described by the NSF, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization. Such activities are expected to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of integrated contributions to research and education.

Dr. Elmer’s CAREER award for “Manipulating the Innate Immune Response to Improve Gene Therapy,”  will support the study of the innate immune response to non-viral gene therapy in non-immune cells (e.g. prostate or breast cancer cells). He explains: “Because host cell DNA is usually confined to the nucleus, cytoplasmic DNA is recognized as a sign of viral or bacterial infection. Therefore, even if a new gene is successfully delivered to a cell, the cell’s defense mechanisms can significantly hinder gene therapy.”  Dr. Elmer will conduct an exhaustive study to determine exactly how the cell responds—which specific genes get turned on and what those genes do. If “bad” genes get turned on, how can they be inhibited? Can certain drugs, like those used for auto-immune diseases, be used to counteract those proteins? Or how can “good” genes be taken advantage of?

Educational Impact  

In addition to its research objectives, Dr. Elmer’s CAREER grant will also provide a number of educational opportunities. First, an Intro to Biotechnology module has been developed for the VESTED (Villanova Engineering, Science, and Technology Enrichment and Development) program at Villanova.  VESTED encourages underrepresented high school students to explore the possibilities of an engineering education while developing the necessary skills required to achieve their goals. The project includes experiments that will allow students to deliver genes to bacteria.

The second educational objective is a Summer Research Experience for Teachers. With funding from this grant, Dr. Elmer will organize a program for high school biology teachers in the Philadelphia area.  Two teachers will be recruited each year to join his lab for six weeks in the summer to conduct their own mini-project that is directly related to one of the research objectives.  Dr. Elmer will personally train each participant on a variety of lab techniques and meet with them weekly to discuss their progress. He also will work with each teacher to develop a lesson plan that the teacher can share with their students in the following year. Interested high school biology or chemistry teachers should contact Dr. Elmer at Jacob.Elmer@villanova.edu to learn more.

The grant will also benefit undergraduates and graduate students in the College of Engineering who will be given the opportunity to conduct the proposed research.

A Love of Teaching

Despite his incredible year of research success, Dr. Elmer lets it be known that he loves teaching. “On a day when nothing about the research is working, I can always come back to teaching and it’s something that I can have fun with.” He teaches two cutting-edge electives in the graduate Biochemical Engineering program: Bioengineering Lab Techniques and Protein Engineering, which give him a good excuse to sit down and read in order to stay up to date. He adds, “There have been quite a few instances when I’ve been preparing a lecture and I’ve found something that helps with the research.”

Dr. Elmer says that he appreciates the balance he has found at Villanova, “I want to have a few PhD students, a couple of courses that I enjoy teaching, and at the end of the day, have enough time to spend with my kids, too.”