Dr. Ashley Nelson Receives Hartwell Foundation Individual Biomedical Research Award

Ashley Nelson

Dr. Ashley Nelson, an assistant professor of immunology research in the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine, has received a 2023 Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award from The Hartwell Foundation. The award provides $100,000 direct cost support per year for three years and designation as a Hartwell Investigator.

Dr. Nelson’s award will support her research into impaired immune responses in children with asthma that make them more susceptible to developing severe respiratory infections. Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disease in which the airways swell and narrow, making breathing difficult. About six million American children under the age of 17 have asthma, and many develop the disease before they are five years old.

“I’m thrilled and honored to receive a Hartwell Award, as it will allow me to pursue work in an important new avenue of research,” said Dr. Nelson, who is also a member of the Gale and Ira Drukier Institute for Children’s Health. “I hope by investigating the processes leading to more severe respiratory viral infections in children with asthma, we will identify potential treatment targets for lowering their risk of disease progression.”

An elevated blood level of the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE) is a hallmark of asthma. Higher IgE levels are also associated with an increased susceptibility to and the progression of respiratory viral infections, including rhinovirus, which causes the common cold; respiratory syncytial virus and SARS-CoV-2. Evidence has shown that drugs targeting IgE reduce the severity and duration of COVID-19, for example.

Dr. Nelson’s work will be among the first to investigate how virus-specific IgE responses contribute to the progression of respiratory viral infections in children with asthma. For her investigation, she will analyze blood samples collected from patients at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic before pediatric vaccines were available. This approach will allow her to study IgE immune responses in children with asthma whose immune systems reacted to their first SARS-CoV-2 exposures.

This work will be done in collaboration with Dr. Stefan Worgall, chief of the Division of Pediatric Pulmonology, Allergy and Immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. Perdita Permaul, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics—lead investigators and key contributors of samples from the SARS-CoV-2 and Pediatric Asthma in NYC (SPAN) urban cohort study of children and adolescents.

Dr. Nelson’s previous research focused on identifying the structure and function of immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibody responses in children living with HIV using advanced technologies. For this new work funded by the Hartwell Award, Dr. Nelson will apply the same methods to investigate IgE responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection in children with asthma. Her hope is that this work will lead to new therapeutic strategies or diagnostic tools for identifying patients at risk for severe disease following a respiratory viral infection.   

Since 2006, The Hartwell Foundation has been funding biomedical research with the potential to benefit the health of American children. Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards are awarded annually to a limited number of researchers conducting early-stage, cutting-edge research yet to be funded by other sources. Dr. Nelson is one of 10 awardees selected from nine institutions by The Hartwell Foundation in 2023, including Dr. Rong Yang, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca.

Dr. Nelson’s Individual Biomedical Research Award qualifies Weill Cornell Medicine to designate a Hartwell Fellowship to fund one postdoctoral candidate in an early stage of their career. The funding provides $50,000 direct cost per year for two years in support of specialized training in biomedical research.

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