Skip to Content

2020 Dickson Prize in Medicine Awarded to Pioneer Researcher

For Journalists

Allison Hydzik
Director, Science and Research

Rick Pietzak
Project Director, Crisis Communications

Want to Make an Appointment or Need Patient Information?
Contact UPMC at


Go to Find a Doctor to search for a UPMC doctor.


Dickson Prize Collins featurePITTSBURGHJames J. Collins, Ph.D., an innovator in synthetic biology whose ideas have contributed to novel diagnostics and treatments targeting infections and complex diseases, has been awarded the 2020 Dickson Prize in Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s highest honor. 


The prize is given annually to an American biomedical researcher who has made significant, progressive contributions to medicine. The award consists of a specially commissioned medal, a $50,000 honorarium and an invitation to present the keynote lecture during the University’s annual campus-wide showcase of scientific research. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both the annual showcase and Collins’ lecture have been postponed until 2021 at a date to be determined.


“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, M.D., Ph.D., Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine. “It is our honor to recognize him with the School of Medicine’s most prestigious award.”


“I’m grateful to work with outstanding lab members and collaborators whose dedication and insight have been critical to what we’ve achieved,” said Collins, who 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. “I am thrilled and honored to receive the Dickson Prize in Medicine.”


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.


Collins earned an A.B. in physics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., before completing a Ph.D. in medical engineering at the University of Oxford with the distinction of Rhodes Scholar. He has received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award, NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and 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 a charter fellow of the National Academy of Inventors
PHOTO INFO: (click image for high-res version)


CREDIT: James J. Collins

CAPTION: James J. Collins, Ph.D.