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Pioneering Biomedical Engineer And Scientist James J. Collins Joins MIT IMES

Monday, December 8, 2014

Imagine a cheap, paper-based test for Ebola. Just add saliva and wait for the results. Such a tool could be a real possibility based on the latest work of one of the founders of synthetic biology, James J. Collins, who is also the latest addition to the faculty of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT, and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. On December 1, Collins became the first Henri Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science at IMES.

“We are so excited Jim has joined us,” says IMES director Arup Chakraborty. “Not only is his research into new approaches to solving biomedical challenges transformative, his interests fit nicely with our efforts in infectious disease therapies and diagnostics.”

Collins, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a member of the Wyss Institute of Harvard University, has spent his entire career at Boston University. But MIT’s world-class biomedical research programs and its outstanding students, including those in the IMES Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program, inspired his move. Of particular interest are the joint efforts between IMES and Massachusetts General Hospital to translate experimental ideas into medical solutions. “I’m excited to see how we can leverage those connections to increase translational efforts at IMES and try to have a positive impact on healthcare,” says Collins.

Among the many research programs underway in Collins’ laboratory are efforts to develop novel diagnostics. In a paper published in Cell on October 23, 2014, Collins introduced a proof of concept means of producing paper-based molecular biosensors. The system allows Collins to embed synthetic gene networks, essentially a biological circuit, on paper. These wet circuits can be freeze-dried and stored indefinitely. When the gene network is rehydrated and exposed to biological material, such as messenger RNA molecules that provide clues about cellular activity, it produces a signal. “We’ve shown you can use these to create inexpensive sensors for antibiotic resistance genes as well as Ebola,” says Collins. “We’d like to build on this and create a new class of programmable diagnostics.”

Collins also has efforts underway to employ synthetic biology to create designer probiotics to treat and prevent infectious diseases. Such innovative interventions are increasingly important since antibiotics, the traditional approach to fighting infection, are becoming less and less effective as microbes find ways to resist antibiotic drugs. Natural probiotics, so called “good bacteria,” reduce the ill effects of “bad bacteria,” the bugs that cause infection, by outcompeting them or creating an inhospitable environment.

Collins is building on this natural capability by outfitting probiotic microbes with precise fighting tools. For instance, Collins has developed an engineered probiotic strain of Lactobacillus gasseri. The common strain of L. Gasseri, the bacteria that turns milk into yogurt, can be bought over the counter at the drug store as a probiotic. Collins’ engineered version has been souped up so that it can detect the presence of the cholera bacteria in the human intestine and respond by producing agents that kill it. Other engineered microorganisms are in the works, with the current focus on Lactococcus lactis, he says. “We’re designing synthetic probiotics that can be used to detect and treat different infections.”

Chakraborty, who led efforts to entice Collins to consider this move, expects his arrival to have influence across the MIT student community, the Broad Institute, the wider IMES research community, and into the Boston biomedical arena. “He’s a great researcher, he’s a great educator, and he’s a great colleague,” says Chakraborty. “I think of him as a triple threat in the most positive sense of the term — he can transform scientific research and education, and provide leadership.”

Collins, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, sees himself as of-a-piece with other MIT synthetic biologists and already collaborates with several MIT labs. “My lab nicely complements other synthetic biology efforts at MIT,” he says. “Like them, we are developing new tools, components and platforms with a focus on clinical applications, though in some cases, different applications.”

Collins relocated his laboratory to the newly renovated IMES research space in Building E-25 on the MIT campus. While most of his existing team remains with him, he will have many new positions open. “We are really excited to tap into the student population at MIT and to begin collaborations with researchers at IMES and across MIT,” he says.