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Jacob Elmer, PhD - Villanova University. Villanova, PA, US

Jacob Elmer, PhD

Dicciani Endowed Professor of Chemical Engineering | College of Engineering | Villanova University


Jacob Elmer, PhD, is an expert in genetic engineering, GMOs, and gene therapy


Areas of Expertise (9)

CAR-T Cell Therapy





Genetic Engineering

Gene Therapy

Blood Donation

Cellular Engineering


Dr. Elmer leads the Drug Discovery and Development Laboratory at Villanova College of Engineering, which performs research in two major areas: Genetic Engineering and the development of Blood Substitutes.

Genetic Engineering:
Decades of research have yielded several vehicles that can efficiently deliver genes to human cells (e.g. viruses, lipids, polymers), but most transgenes are recognized as foreign and quickly silenced after they reach the nucleus. Dr. Elmer’s research focuses on enhancing and prolonging transgene expression to make gene therapy more effective - specifically, enhancing gene expression inside T cells, which can then be genetically reprogrammed and used to target and eradicate leukemia cells.

Blood Substitutes:
A shortage in human blood donations is a serious and life-threatening issue that plagues developing countries, battlefields and healthcare facilities alike. Professor Elmer’s research is focused on finding a universal donor “blood substitute” that is safe, stable for long periods of time, and is an effective oxygen carrier. His research is currently focused on developing invertebrate hemoglobins as novel blood substitutes.

Education (2)

Ohio State University: PhD

University of Missouri: BS

Dual BS degrees in Biochemical Engineering and Biological Sciences

Select Media Appearances (4)

Synthetic blood substitute research advances rapidly

The Washington Post  print


Jacob Elmer’s group at Villanova University is instead exploring hemoglobin from the earthworm commonly known as Canadian nightcrawler — which naturally circulates in the bloodstream without the protection of a red blood cell. “Earthworm hemoglobin has many favorable adaptations that makes it a great blood substitute candidate,” Elmer said, “and preliminary studies have shown that they can safely deliver oxygen in mice and hamsters without the adverse effects of cow and human hemoglobin.”

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How Earthworms Could Be Used o Save Lives on the Battlefield

KYW News  radio


Earthworm hemoglobin could soon be used as a blood substitute to save the lives of soldiers in the field. Dr. Jacob Elmer, associate professor of chemical engineering at Villanova University, says the substitute is plentiful and appears to work. "You can go to Walmart right now and get them, Canadian nightcrawlers. So, so far we've only tested it in mice and hamsters but what we've seen so far has been very promising," he said. He says in the past, blood substitutes have come from humans or cows and have all had serious side effects including stroke and heart attacks. The earthworm substitute doesn't have to be refrigerated so it's perfect for use on the battlefield and it can be used for any blood type.

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This Villanova Researcher Is Using Earthworms to Create a Human Blood Substitute

Philadelphia magazine  online


Associate professor Jacob Elmer says the critters may hold the secret to a viable and sustainable replacement for human blood donations.

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Villanova professor sees earthworms as hope for human blood substitute

Philly Voice  online


A Villanova University chemical engineering professor, seeking to find an alternative source for human blood in unconventional emergencies, believes he may have identified an underground candidate: earthworms.

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Research Grants (4)

CAREER: Manipulating the Innate Immune Response to Improve Gene Therapy

National Science Foundation $500,000


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Evaluation of Invertebrate Hemoglobins as Effective, Safe, and Ultra-Stable Blood Substitutes

National Institutes of Health $432,392


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Biomanufacturing: Optimizing the Isolation, Transfection, and Expansion of CAR-T cells with Modified PES Membranes

National Science Foundation $299,999


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Manipulating Epigenetic Mechanisms to Enhance Non-Viral Transgene Expression

National Science Foundation $174,000


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Select Academic Articles (4)

The histone deacetylase inhibitor Entinostat enhances polymer-mediated transgene expression in cancer cell lines

Biotechnol Bioeng

Elmer JJ, Christensen MD, Barua S, Lehrman J, Haynes KA, Rege K

2016 Eukaryotic cells maintain an immense amount of genetic information by tightly wrapping their DNA around positively charged histones. While this strategy allows human cells to maintain more than 25,000 genes, histone binding can also block gene expression. Consequently, cells express histone acetyl transferases (HATs) to acetylate histone lysines and release DNA for transcription. Conversely, histone deacetylases (HDACs) are employed for restoring the positive charge on the histones, thereby silencing gene expression by increasing histone-DNA binding. It has previously been shown that histones bind and silence viral DNA, while hyperacetylation of histones via HDAC inhibition restores viral gene expression. In this study, we demonstrate that treatment with Entinostat, an HDAC inhibitor, enhances transgene (luciferase) expression by up to 25-fold in human prostate and murine bladder cancer cell lines when used with cationic polymers for plasmid DNA delivery. Entinostat treatment altered cell cycle progression, resulting in a significant increase in the fraction of cells present in the G0/G1 phase at low micromolar concentrations.

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Prolonging the shelf life of Lumbricus terrestris erythrocruorin for use as a novel blood substitute


Muzzelo C, Neely C, Shah P, Abdulmalik O, Elmer J.

2017 Limitations associated with the storage of red blood cells have motivated the development of novel blood substitutes that are able to withstand long-term storage at elevated temperatures. The hemoglobin of the earthworm Lumbricus terrestris (LtEc) is an attractive blood substitute candidate, since it is resistant to oxidation and aggregation during storage. Several factors were investigated to optimize the thermal and oxidative stability of LtEc during storage, including pH, antioxidant supplements, and deoxygenation. A strategy for the reduction of fully oxidized LtEc with antioxidants was also developed.

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Hypervolemic infusion of Lumbricus terrestris erythrocruorin purified by tangential-flow filtration


Elmer, J., Zorc, K., Rameez, S., Zhou, Y., Cabrales, P., & Palmer, A. F.

2012 BACKGROUND: The hemoglobin of the earthworm Lumbricus terrestris (also known as erythrocruorin, or LtEc) is a naturally occurring high-molecular-weight protein assembly (3.6 MDa) that is extremely stable, resistant to oxidation, and transports oxygen similarly to human whole blood. Therefore, LtEc may serve as an alternative to donated human red blood cells. However, a suitable purification process must be developed to produce highly pure LtEc on a large scale that can be evaluated in an animal model to determine the safety and efficacy of LtEc...

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Functional comparison of hemoglobin purified by different methods and their biophysical implications

Biotechnology and bioengineering

Elmer, J., Buehler, P. W., Jia, Y., Wood, F., Harris, D. R., Alayash, A. I., & Palmer, A. F.

2010 Hemoglobin (Hb) that is purified from red blood cells (RBCs) is commonly subjected to harsh processing conditions, such as high temperatures and extensive column separation, which may damage the Hb by altering the heme prosthetic group and/or the Hb protein structure. In this study, bovine and human Hb purified by tangential flow filtration (TFF) was compared to commercial preparations of human Hb (Hemosol, Inc., Toronto, Canada) and bovine Hb (Biopure, Inc., Cambridge, MA). Purified Hbs were characterized by measuring their overall purity (SDS–PAGE, SEC, and ESI-MS), susceptibility to oxidation (kox), responses to physiological conditions (pH, [Cl−], [IHP], and T), and ligand binding kinetics (O2, NO, and CO)...

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