James J. Collins (Balliol 1987), an innovator in synthetic biology, has been awarded the 2020 Dickson Prize for Medicine by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The prize is given annually to an American biomedical researcher who has made significant, progressive contributions to medicine; it is the university’s most prestigious award.
James Collins is the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in the Department of Biological Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is affiliated faculty with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, and the Wyss Institute at Harvard. ‘Dr. Collins is defining what’s possible in the disciplines of synthetic and systems biology. His highly creative work applying engineering design principles to molecular biology has generated numerous new diagnostics and therapeutics with wide application to medicine,’ said Anantha Shekhar, MD PhD, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine.
The announcment of the award continues: ‘A seminal 2000 publication describing the successful creation of a stable, synthetic gene circuit in Escherichia coli bacteria has been cited more than 4,000 times and marked the arrival of an important new discipline in biomedicine. Collins later demonstrated that synthetic gene networks could be linked with a cell’s genetic circuitry as a regulatory mechanism to create programmable cells for biomedical applications.
‘More recently, Collins has created engineered microbes and whole-cell biosensors to serve as in vivo diagnostics and therapeutics. One innovative platform that he and colleagues developed embeds freeze-dried, cell-free synthetic gene networks onto paper and other materials with a wide range of potential clinical and research applications. The resulting materials contain properties of a living cell, are stable at room temperature and can be activated by simply adding water. Collins’s work on freeze-dried, cell-free synthetic biology has established a platform for a new class of rapid, programmable in vitro diagnostics for emerging pathogens, including drug-resistant bacteria and viruses. Collins and his team currently are developing a rapid self-activating COVID-19 face mask as a wearable diagnostic.’