Chemical Engineering Professor Earns NSF’s Most Prestigious Early Career Award

Jacob Elmer, PhD
Jacob Elmer, PhD

Who: Jacob Elmer, PhD, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering

Research grants:

  • $300,000 from the National Science Foundation to streamline the production of genetically engineered T cells to treat leukemia patients
  • From the National Institutes of Health—$254,000—part of a $432,000 grant with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—to study earthworm hemoglobin as a potential blood substitute
  • National Science Foundation $500,000 NSF CAREER award for “Manipulating the Innate Immune Response to Improve Gene Therapy

Gene therapy research: Dr. Elmer's work will support the study of the innate immune response to nonviral gene therapy in nonimmune 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 autoimmune diseases, be used to counteract those proteins? Or how can “good” genes be taken advantage of?

Working with Villanova students: Undergraduates and graduate students in the College of Engineering will be given the opportunity to conduct research with Dr. Elmer. In the past three years, he has had two dozen undergraduates—including a 2016 Gates Cambridge scholar—assist him in the lab.

A love of 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.”

Cutting-edge electives: In the graduate Biochemical Engineering program, Dr. Elmer teaches 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 my research.”

Final words: 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.”