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Science alumnus leads groundbreaking career as medical researcher

Editor's note: The following story about 1998 UW-Eau Claire alumnus  Dr. Timothy Nelson appeared in the March 3 issue of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram and is reprinted with permission. The story's author, reporter Eric Lindquist, also is a UW-Eau Claire alumnus.

By Eric Lindquist
Eau Claire Leader-Telegram staff

Osseo-Fairchild High School basketball standout Tim Nelson abandoned his dream of playing for Bo Ryan to focus on his other love — science — and the world could be a healthier place because of it.

Nelson, Osseo-Fairchild's valedictorian in 1994, enrolled at UW-Platteville in hopes of continuing his hoops career under Ryan, now the Wisconsin Badgers head coach, but decided instead to transfer to UW-Eau Claire and concentrate on studying biochemistry and molecular biology. In retrospect, even the feisty Ryan might agree it was a good decision.

Less than two decades later, Dr. Timothy J. Nelson, 37, stands poised at the forefront of medical research, leading a team at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., that hopes to change the future of medicine through its quest for the Holy Grail of healing: regenerative medicine.

The goal is to be able to bioengineer stem cells that could be directed into becoming whatever spare parts might be needed to fix an ailing human body.

"Even to me that idea five years ago was completely science fiction," Nelson said. "But today it's an engineering problem. We have the technology, we have the vision, we have the unmet needs ... we just need to optimize it to a reproducible process so we can deliver it to our patients in a safe and effective manner."

The incredible promise of stem cell-based regenerative medicine, a technology that earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine last year, has prompted Mayo to make it a strategic and research priority.

"Regenerative medicine is using the latest science available to us to not only put a Band-Aid on a problem, but to identify the root cause of the problem and then find a cure," said Nelson, who has worked at Mayo for seven years.

Ultimately, the idea is that faulty or diseased parts actually could revert to a healthy state, eliminating the need to take medicines, undergo repair surgeries or even pursue organ transplants.

"The easiest way to describe it is it's the opposite of degeneration, which everyone understands," he said. "Whether it's your hip, your ankle, your heart or your liver, tissue breakdown is degeneration. Regenerative medicine is the science and the practice of medicine to try to reverse that so the patient is not losing tissue but actually building tissue and healing."

Nelson equated it to the healing, or regeneration, of skin after a cut — only he's thinking in much bigger terms, such as the ability to repair or even replace a broken heart.

"We can definitely say he's at the vanguard of future medicine," Dr. Andre Terzic, a cardiologist who heads Mayo's Center for Regenerative Medicine, said of Nelson.

Nelson, in addition to being a brilliant researcher, keeps his eye on the ball by pushing to harness the new technology in a way that addresses the unmet needs of patients, in part by building a regenerative medicine clinic at Mayo, Terzic said.

Aiming for a cure

As director of Mayo's Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, Nelson is focusing his microscope on a cure for HLHS, a rare and extremely serious heart defect in which babies essentially are born with half a functioning heart.

The condition strikes about 1,500 children a year in the United States and, until the advent of surgical advances in the early 1980s, always was fatal within a few days of birth.

"It's one of the most challenging congenital heart diseases we face, and we've reached the limits of what surgically we can do," Nelson said, explaining that regenerative medicine offers the promise of making the heart bigger, better and stronger so surgical repairs can be sustainable for a lifespan.

It also provides a ray of hope for all of those kids, born with HLHS, who are stuck on transplant waiting lists.

The aim is to bioengineer stem cells — from ordinary cells in a person's body, thus limiting the chance of rejection while also avoiding the controversy associated with harvesting stem cells from unborn babies — that can be reprogrammed to create new tissues and even organs, Nelson said.

Short of that, he said, "transplant medicine is limited by the fact that we don't have enough organs to go around for all of the people who need them."

Terzic described Nelson as one of the leading specialists in the world in bringing regenerative medicine solutions to children with congenital heart defects.

Despite the futuristic sound of today's medical technology, Nelson pointed out that it's an offshoot of what doctors have been doing for five decades in harvesting bone marrow stem cells from people's bodies to give rise to healthy blood cells for use after cancer treatments.

"What we're doing today is we're trying to find new stem cells that can give rise to the heart muscle, to brain cells, to muscle cells, to liver cells," he said. "If we can find the stem cells to regenerate these other tissues, we can do the same thing that we've been doing for five decades for the blood system."

Such treatments are already in clinical trials at Mayo and other leading health care research institutions around the world.

"In the very near future, we are going to have (the first U.S.) clinical trials where we will be able to use stem cells to treat congenital heart disease," vowed Nelson, whose research has been nationally recognized by the American Heart Association, National Institutes of Health and International Symposium on Stem Cell Research.

Growing a heart

Nelson's pioneering research was featured earlier this year on an episode of ABC's "Nightline" in which reporter Bill Weir, a Wisconsin native, allowed Nelson's team to take a tiny sample of tissue from his arm and reprogram it into stem cells that they later grew into heart tissue.

Nelson described the reprogramming process as sending the adult cells back in time so they "remember" what they were like when they were a few days old in an embryo, giving them greater capacity to transform into new cells than the original skin cells.

Weir was able to return months after his first visit and look through a microscope to see his own cardiac tissue pulse at 60 beats a minute, becoming what Nelson labeled "the first person to ever see his own heart tissue beat outside his body."

"It's not theoretical to us anymore," Nelson said. "We can now convert ordinary cells into stem cells, and that technology is a game-changer."

The next frontier of medicine, it seems, is getting closer all the time — with the help of a young man with roots in the Chippewa Valley.