Welcome to Nelson Lab

Interdisciplinary Research in Autoimmune Disease, Cancer and Transplantation

Our research group focuses on chimerism which means having cells (or DNA) that originated in another person. Chimerism is created in transplantation, but chimerism occurs naturally on a smaller scale called “micro”chimerism.

Figure legend: Exchange of cells (and DNA) during pregnancy Results in a small population of “immigrants” that persist decades later with a variety of health consequences for good and bad. From: Nelson JL “Your Cells are My Cells” Scientific American

Most often microchimerism originates from cells (and DNA) exchanged between a mother and child during pregnancy that surprisingly persist in the other person decades later. Microchimerism is common and has a number of different consequences for human health and disease.

Our research team primarily investigates microchimerism in autoimmune disease and cancer. The autoimmune diseases we work on are sclerodermarheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.

Cancer work is directed to harnessing the power of naturally acquired microchimerism against cancer. Initial studies focused on microchimerism in the protective effect of pregnancy against breast cancer. Studies currently in progress (2016) are especially exciting investigating “mother as anti-cancer drug” against acute leukemia.

Microchimerism has only recently been appreciated and has further wide implications for human health. We have studied microchimerism in some infectious diseases (malaria and HIV), neurologic disorders (Alzheimer’s disease) and pregnancy complications (miscarriage and preeclampsia).

Autoimmune Disease

The autoimmune diseases we study are scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. We previously studied systemic lupus, neonatal lupus, type 1 diabetes and primary biliary cirrhosis.

In addition to good consequences microchimerism can also sometimes be detrimental to health. In the first report of microchimerism in an autoimmune disease we reported increased levels of fetal origin microchimerism in scleroderma.

In neonatal lupus and type 1 diabetes we found that microchimerism isn’t limited to just circulating blood cells but includes specialized body cells in tissue; microchimerism of maternal origin was present as cardiac muscle cells in neonatal lupus and as insulin-producing cells in the pancreas in type 1 diabetes. 

In rheumatoid arthritis we found a correlation of pregnancy-induced arthritis improvement with child-mother mismatch for particular genes that are important in immune response (HLA). We further found a direct correlation with fetal microchimerism in maternal blood.

We are currently applying for funding to investigate the role of fetal (and placental) microchimerism in the pregnancy-induced improvement of multiple sclerosis


We found fetal microchimerism was deficient among women with breast cancer compared to healthy women, pointing to a cancer-protective role. Early results from current studies suggest microchimerism from the mother can act like an “anti-cancer drug” against acute leukemia, especially in cord blood transplantation.