Clifford Brangwynne, pioneer of the study of living cells, wins Dickson Prize in Medicine

Written by
Scott Lyon, Office of Engineering Communications
May 4, 2023

Bioengineer Clifford Brangwynne, who has linked fundamental biological processes at the heart of cancers and neurological disorders to liquid droplets in living cells, was awarded the 2023 Dickson Prize in Medicine by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The prize is awarded annually to an American biomedical researcher who has made significant, progressive contributions to medicine.

“Cliff’s incredibly influential work has opened a new window into biology that could help us better understand diseases affected by changes in protein states, like Alzheimer’s,” said Anantha Shekhar, M.D., Ph.D., Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine.

Brangwynne, who directs the Princeton Bioengineering Initiative, created a new field in cell biology when he unified elements of material sciences with life sciences. He and his colleagues discovered that biomolecules such as proteins 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.

Alongside this discovery, Brangwynne and colleagues demonstrated that malfunctions in these condensates lead to the formation of solid structures that resemble the tangles and fibers observed in neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. 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, the June K. Wu ’92 Professor in Engineering and professor of chemical and bioengineering at Princeton, will accept the award during a research symposium sponsored by Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University. The award consists of a specially commissioned medal, a $50,000 honorarium and an invitation to present a keynote lecture, which Brangwynne will give on May 12.

Brangwynne earned his undergraduate degree in material science and engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 2001 and his Ph.D. 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.

This June, Brangwynne will also receive the 2023 Sackler Prize in Biophysics, from Tel Aviv University. With the combined prize money from the Dickson Prize and the Sackler Prize, Brangwynne is establishing a fund focused on helping address the opioid crisis, homelessness and mental health.

Brangwynne has received many other honors and awards for his contributions to the study of living cells, including a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, Searle Scholar Award, National Science Foundation CAREER Award and Sloan Research Fellowship. 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. In 2021, he received the Blavatnik National Award in Life Sciences, followed by the Tsuneko and Reiji Okazaki Award, and was recently awarded the 2023 Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences.