Nelson Develops Models to Advance Understanding   

Headshot of Andrew NelsonAndrew Nelson has gone where his curiosity pushes him, professionally. The relative newcomer to the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI) is a veterinarian by training, but he didn’t originally set out to pursue preclinical research. It was a series of increasingly involved career moves which took him across the country, finally to play a pivotal role in the burgeoning research program at the CDI to better understand infectious disease, as well as cancer.

“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to explore my interests,” said Nelson recently, from his office. “And I couldn’t be happier that those experiences have brought me to the CDI.”

“Andrew Nelson is a key addition to our programs,” said David Perlin, Ph.D., the chief scientific officer and executive vice president of the CDI. “His experience in developing these models, and his commitment to growing the program, is exactly what the CDI needs to advance its science.”

From Mathematics to Biomedical Sciences

Nelson originally had his sights set on advanced mathematics as a career trajectory. But some experiences with cryptography and other courses in college convinced him he wanted more involvement in hands-on science.

“I didn’t set out to do veterinary work,” he said, recently in his office. “Originally I wanted to be a mathematician. But things took me elsewhere.”

As an undergraduate at West Virginia University, he found himself drawn into the robust plant genomics program, where he had his first experience with laboratory work. He learned quantitative trait loci analysis and mapping as it related to phytoremediation and other plant based technologies. This work and its evolution under the guiding hand of the scientists held a unique fascination for him. Ultimately it provided skill sets he came to realize he wanted to employ in a different, if parallel, way.

“I learned many bioinformatics tools in the context of plant population genetics, but I wanted to go into biomedical sciences,” Nelson recalled.

The next job was as a veterinary technician at a companion animal practice. That’s when he knew he wanted to work with animals. Upon relocating with his fiance to Baltimore, he found a role at Johns Hopkins University in the program focusing on respiratory physiology and pathophysiology. The work focused on preclinical models of acute and chronic lung conditions - looking at disease and injury from not only the biological, but also as questions of engineering and mathematical riddles. Nelson helped manage the laboratory and organized the activities within it. It was exactly what he wanted to do.

The next step was how to bring these fields of expertise together in a comprehensive way. That meant veterinary school - he relocated to Ohio State University, and earned his DVM degree there. It was a strategic choice; there he worked with well-established professionals on models of influenza infection and chronic allergic asthma, and as part of his graduate study program was able to work on questions of host cellular metabolism and inflammation in the context of these disease states.

“From day one, I was taught to think comparatively, of similarities and differences across species,” said Nelson. “We want to capture what’s happening in a human so we can answer important scientific questions of disease. That comes down to whether there’s an existing model, or whether we need to develop a new one.”

From there, Nelson moved to New Mexico, to work at the Lovelace Biomedical Research Institute, where he was a study director for commercially sponsored programs and provided oversight of the cardiopulmonary safety pharmacology work. He managed the scientific conduct of projects investigating the effectiveness of various pharmaceutical treatments, including small molecule and biologics programs.

“I have had phenomenal mentors who have been crucial to my development as a scientist.”

At the CDI

Nelson was hired as part of the effort for the Metropolitan AntiViral Drug Accelerator (MAVDA), funded by a three-year, $65 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. MAVDA was formed initially to develop oral antiviral drugs for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the program links academia with pharmaceutical companies to find and create treatments faster than ever before. But MAVDA is also looking for drugs to treat a wide range of viruses. One of the current pathogens being tested aside from SARs-CoV-2 is the virus that causes MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) as well, for example. Nelson helps the teams for the CDI and other partner institutions run their models to test the compounds against these pathogens. His efforts bridge the gap between innovative bench science and the potential impact on human disease.

“My role in the sciences has primarily been one of support,” he said recently.

The goal is to develop the models not just for infectious disease, but also for the wide array of cancer research projects underway at the CDI. Nelson sees himself as refining and expanding the program, and helping to further enable already-robust collaborations. Future improvements include expanded use of in-vivo imaging equipment, development of clinically relevant in-vivo infectious disease and cancer models to better understand life-threatening diseases, and integration of robust immune markers in preclinical efficacy studies.

“I also aim to incorporate more industry-style operations in the services we offer, while still retaining academic rigor ,” he said. “We want to continue to improve and expand.”


Nelson grew up in southern West Virginia, as one of three children. His father is an accountant and works in corporate finance, and his mother is a hairstylist who has owned multiple salons.

Nelson is currently engaged to his high school sweetheart, who is a biochemist.

For his spare time he rock climbs as frequently as possible; he is an avid reader of literary fiction and a wide variety of other books; and he is an enthusiastic cook.

His ultimate career goal is two-part: first, to develop state-of-the-art preclinical models that can answer important questions about disease and the efficacy of candidate therapeutics evaluated here at the CDI; and second, to carve out a research program that seeks to better understand how the presence of chronic disease influences susceptibility to acute infection.

For Nelson, the CDI is the place to develop this kind of work.

“Coming here has been very smooth, and very collaborative,” he said. “I’ve been here less than a year and it is already home.”

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