Dickson Prize Day will celebrate past three winners

The Pitt research community will celebrate the Dickson Prize in Medicine winners for 2020, 2021 and 2022 with the the first-ever Dickson Prize Day on July 19.

The Dickson Prize in Medicine is the most prestigious honor given by the Pitt School of Medicine. It has been given out annually since 1971 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 a seminal lecture at Pitt. The winners for the past two years were unable to travel to campus because of the pandemic.

For the Dickson Prize Day, the past three years’ winners will give in-person talks to the University’s research community, followed by talks from Pitt faculty whose work complements that of the Dickson Prize recipients.

Pitt faculty panelists include Warren Ruder, Vaughn Cooper, Alexander Deiters, Alison Morris, Toren Finkel, Arjumand Ghazi, Aditi U. Gurkar, Andrey A. Parkhitko, Kay Brummond, Robert Ferris and JoAnne L. Flynn.

The event will be from 8 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. July 19 in the University Club, with a reception to follow. All events also will be livestreamed. Register now.

About the winners

Carolyn Bertozzi, the Dickson Prize honoree for 2022, will give a talk, “Therapeutic Opportunities in Glycoscience.” Bertozzi is a professor of chemistry at Stanford University.

Carolyn BertozziBertozzi’s research interests span the disciplines of chemistry and biology, with an emphasis on studies of how sugar molecules on cell surfaces are important contributors to diseases like cancer, inflammation and bacterial infection. Her lab has identified ways to modify these sugar molecules through bioorthogonal chemistry — a method that employs chemical reactions that do not interfere with normal cellular processes. This approach has allowed her to develop new therapeutic approaches to treat many diseases, including most recently in the field of cancer immunotherapy.  

In addition to her research, Bertozzi works actively to translate her science into new therapies. She has cofounded several startups, including Redwood Bioscience, Enable Biosciences, InterVenn Biosciences, OliLux Biosciences and Lycia Therapeutics.

Cynthia Kenyon, the 2021 Dickson Prize winner, will discuss “The Plasticity of Aging.” Kenyon is vice president of aging research at Calico Life Sciences, an American Cancer Society professor, and emeritus professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California-San Francisco.

In 1993 as a faculty member at UCSF, Kenyon discovered that a single gene mutation could double the lifespan of healthy roundworms—a finding that sparked an intensive study of the molecular biology of aging. Her research showed that the aging process is not random and haphazard as previously thought but, instead, is subject to active genetic regulation. Her work led to the realization that a hormonal network influences the rate of aging in many organisms, possibly including humans.

Since then, Kenyon and her lab members discovered a variety of genes that influence aging by coordinating diverse processes that protect cells and tissues. In addition, Kenyon and her team found that different kinds of tissues work together to control the pace of the aging process, and that individual neurons and germ cells can control an animal’s lifespan.

James J. Collins, 2020 Dickson Prize honoree, will give a talk on “Harnessing Synthetic Biology and Deep Learning to Fight Pathogens.” Collins is the professor of medical engineering and science and professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also is affiliated faculty with the Broad Institute of MIT and the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

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 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 vivodiagnostics 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’ 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.