University of Pittsburgh

The Dickson Prize in Medicine

2023 Dickson Prize Winner


Clifford Brangwynne, PhD

June K. Wu ’92 Professor of Engineering and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Princeton University

Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Clifford Brangwynne, PhD, June K. Wu ’92 Professor of Engineering and professor of chemical and biological engineering at Princeton University, has been selected to receive the 2023 Dickson Prize in Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s highest honor.

Brangwynne launched the “biomolecular condensates” cell biology field when he unified material sciences with biology. Phase transitions are a fundamental concept of matter. Water, for example, can transition from a liquid to a solid or gas. Yet, while biomolecules—like proteins—are themselves a type of matter, it was previously unknown whether they also undergo similar phase transitions within living cells. Brangwynne and colleagues discovered that biomolecules in a cell can organize themselves into liquid-like droplets called biomolecular condensates. The formation of these condensates is akin to oil molecules creating droplets as they separate from water.

Brangwynne observed that these condensates act similarly to organelles, even though they lack the characteristic lipid bilayer membrane. While membraneless, these condensates still maintain an inside and outside environmental boundary—the inside sets the stage for various biochemical reactions and interactions. This observation showed that the physics responsible for material phase changes and the separation of oil and water also drive the dynamic changes in structure and biology occurring within a cell’s cytoplasm.

Alongside this discovery, Brangwynne and colleagues proposed and helped demonstrate that malfunctions in fusion and separation during phase transitions of these liquid-like condensates lead to the formation of solid structures. These solid structures resemble the tangles and fibers observed in neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. His recent studies have harnessed light-sensitive proteins to manipulate condensate dynamics to characterize pathological outcomes resulting from disruptions to their phase transitions. He and his team continue to develop tools to define the biophysical properties of condensates and explore the utility of this knowledge in biotechnology and medicine.

Brangwynne earned his undergraduate degree in material science and engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 2001 and his PhD in applied physics from Harvard University in 2007. He then completed his postdoctoral training at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems. Brangwynne joined the faculty at Princeton University in 2011, where he has an integrative research team with backgrounds in engineering, physics, molecular biology, and chemistry.

Brangwynne has received many honors and awards, including a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award (2012), Searle Scholar Award (2012), National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2013), and Sloan Research Fellowship (2014). In 2018, he became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a MacArthur Fellow. The following year, he was named director of the newly formed Princeton Bioengineering Initiative, which brings together more than 30 principal investigators to develop tools and technologies that will enable scientists to interface with living matter at every scale. He received the Blavatnik National Award in Life Sciences in 2020, followed by the Tsuneko and Reiji Okazaki Award in 2021. Brangwynne continues to receive recognition for his contributions to the study of living cells and has recently received the 2023 Raymond and Beverly Sackler International Prize in Biophysics and the 2023 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.