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Keeping inflammation in check

PROFILE Nelson Ongondo Gekara enjoys mulling over the mysteries of life. At the moment, the impact of genomic instability on the immune system is top of mind.

"Scientists are nomads," says Nelson Ongondo Gekara, group leader at the department of molecular biology and the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS). "You go where the science takes you."

Born and raised in Kenya, Nelson has moved around for his education and career, living in Switzerland, Germany, and since 2010, Umeå, Sweden. Northern Sweden may be cold, but the people are kind, says Nelson. "Swedes are gentle people who make a real effort to be civilized with each other," he says. "People try to coexist even if they don't always agree with each other. There is a genuine effort behind that which I find remarkable."

Life in lagom land

He points out that "lagom," the Swedish word for "just right," plays a role in this mentality. Lagom can be good as everything needs to be moderated, but the downside is that sometimes finding solutions can take more time and discussions can be endless. It's good to consider everyone's opinion but sometimes I want to move on!"

Scientists are nomads. You go where the science takes you.

Nonetheless, Nelson believes that living in different countries has turned him into a more flexible person, who has had to adjust to new environments and various ways of communicating and operating.

Nelson's current research focuses on how damage to DNA can impact the immune system and develop into chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatism or into cancer. Nelson's goal, when coming to Umeå University, was to prove there is a bridge between the immune system and DNA damage.

"Our DNA is constantly being damaged and always in disrepair," says Nelson. DNA damage can be caused by normal processes such as cell division and metabolism or from external sources such as environmental chemicals or sun radiation. Findings indicate that these DNA lesions provoke inflammation and that this has many implications on aging, cancer and inflammatory diseases.

Balancing inflammation

Reducing inflammation is a key to survival, says Nelson, and he is working intensively to identify the bodily regulators that control inflammation. "Inflammation is essential for protection against infections and tissue healing. However, excessive or continuous inflammation causes self-injury. Therefore, for health the key is not to just stop inflammation but to ensure a balanced level of inflammation," he says. "The signalling molecules that control this balance is what we are interested in."

One of the major achievements of Nelson's research since joining Umeå University is demonstrating the link between DNA damage and the immune system and the signalling molecules involved.

"With the knowledge that DNA damage can cause inflammation, and the knowledge of how, we now understand better how anti-cancer treatment such as radiation functions and possible avenues for improved therapies," says Nelson. "Without the good research conditions and support from Umeå University, in particular the Laboratory for Molecular infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS), this would not have been possible."

Prize winner

Nelson's research at the university has also attracted international attention and acknowledgment in the form of a prestigious award. In 2016, Nelson received the Erik K. Fernström prize for his strong research development since starting as a group leader at MIMS. The award for 100,000 Swedish kronor (approximately 10,000 euros) is given to Nordic scientists in medicine.

"Resolving the mysteries of life is the best thing about my job," says Nelson. "Being able to do research work in the lab and training young people is very rewarding. I like seeing how students start from scratch and develop until they can argue scientifically."

Nelson Ongondo Gekara

Born in Kenya.
Has a PhD from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany and a postdoc from the University of Cologne
At the University of Umeå since 2010.
Current research focuses on how DNA damage affects the immune system and inflammation.
Winner of the 2016 Erik K. Fernström prize.