After returning to his alma mater to start a genetic research lab this summer, one UA faculty member earned a $735,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH awarded the three-year grant to Christopher Nelson, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, according to an Oct. 1 press release. Nelson received a research startup package from the university and arrived in June to start a biomedical genome editing lab, the first of its kind at the UofA, he said. The NIH grant will help cover additional research costs for Nelson and his team of graduate students.

The team plans to build off of Nelson’s prior research on gene editing’s potential to cure genetic diseases, Nelson said. 

“We’re looking to apply new genome-editing technologies to fix genetic disease,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to go in with the sort of ‘spell check’ of the genome and precisely correct genetic mutations.”

Nelson specifically intends to focus on Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a severe genetic disease that affects about six in every 100,000 people (mostly males) in Europe and North America.

Nelson said he also plans to use gene editing technologies to modify the genetic mutations that cause hemophilia — a genetic bleeding disorder that affects about one in every 5,000 babies born in the US.

“We can treat cells outside the body and correct mutations, but it’s really hard to do that in a tissue inside the body, so far,” Nelson said. “We want to make new, safer, and more effective vehicles for delivering genome editing constructs into people. It’s ways to delivery the machinery that goes in and corrects the DNA.”

Nelson graduated from the UofA in 2009, earned his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University and did five years of postdoctoral genome editing research at Duke University. He was eager to return to the UofA in June to continue his exploration of genome editing, he said.

“I wanted to come back and promote biomedical engineering in my home city at my home university,” Nelson said.

The grant Nelson received is the NIH-R00, the more substantial second phase of the NIH’s Pathway to Independence Award. He won the R00 after previously receiving the first phase, the K99, which supported his final year of research at Duke.

“We have to bring in independent federal money in order to stay competitive and do good research,” Nelson said. “So it was a relief to get the R00, and it will give me the initial kickstart I need to get a really good independent research program going.”

Nelson’s team so far consists of four first-year doctoral students: Landon Burcham, Alexis Ivy, Morgan Reese and Made Harumi Padmaswari. They will serve as the first graduate assistants in the “Nelson lab,” as the team has called it in lieu of an official name.

While there is no start date set for the team’s work in the Nelson lab, Nelson said they finalizing their research questions and ordering lab materials. They will be ready to start their research once their equipment arrives and the lab is fully outfitted.

Sarah Komar is a staff reporter for The Arkansas Traveler.

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