University of Pittsburgh

The Dickson Prize in Medicine

2020 Dickson Prize Winner


James J. Collins, PhD

Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science

Professor of Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

James J. Collins, PhD, is the 2020 recipient of the Dickson Prize in Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s highest honor. Collins is a pioneer in synthetic biology whose ideas have contributed to novel diagnostics and treatments targeting infections and complex diseases. Using engineering principles to design and construct synthetic gene networks, he was one of the first to harness the biochemical and biophysical properties of nucleic acids and proteins to create biological circuits.

A seminal 2000 publication in Nature describing the successful creation of a bistable, synthetic gene switch in Escherichia coli has been cited more than 4,000 times and marks the arrival of an important new discipline in biomedicine. Collins later demonstrated that synthetic gene networks can be linked with a cell’s genetic circuitry as a regulatory mechanism to create programmable cells for biomedical applications. Along these lines, Collins has created engineered microbes to serve as in vivo diagnostics and therapeutics.

More recently, Collins and colleagues developed an innovative platform that embeds freeze-dried, cell-free synthetic gene networks onto paper and other materials, including cloth, 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. Of note, Collins’ 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.

These paper-based sensors have already been used in clinical trials to diagnose Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever, in multiple countries. Additional paper-based diagnostic tests are being created for HIV, malaria, hepatitis C, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and Lyme disease. Currently, Collins and his team are using the underlying synthetic biology technology to develop a self-activating COVID-19 face mask as a wearable, rapid diagnostic.  Collins is advancing, if not defining, the emerging discipline of synthetic biology with insightful, creative work that is transforming biomedicine.

Collins’ patented technologies have been licensed by more than 25 biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies; and he has helped to launch a number of companies, including Synlogic, Sherlock Biosciences, and Senti Biosciences. Synlogic, for example, is using Collins’ synthetic gene networks and programmable cells to create a novel class of living medicines to treat rare genetic metabolic disorders, IBD, and cancer. Clinical trials are underway targeting phenylketonuria (PKU) and solid tumors.

Collins is the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science and professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also affiliated faculty with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the Wyss Institute at Harvard. He has received numerous awards and honors, including a Rhodes Scholarship, a MacArthur “Genius” Award, an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, the Max Delbruck Prize in Biological Physics, and the Sanofi-Institut Pasteur Award.

Collins is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also a charter fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. Collins earned his bachelor's degree in physics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, before completing a PhD in medical engineering at the University of Oxford with the distinction of Rhodes Scholar.