the three winners posing with people clapping near them
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The inaugural Dickson Prize Day brought groundbreaking scientists to Pitt

  • Innovation and Research
  • School of Medicine

“As a physicist, I marvel at how we managed to bend space and time to get three eminent scientists here on the same day,” said University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher during his welcome remarks at Dickson Prize Day, held on July 19, at the University Club.

Over the Dickson Prize in Medicine’s history, 15 award recipients went on to win a Nobel Prize, and 23 recipients received the Lasker Award, noted Anantha Shekhar, John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine. The Dickson is the highest honor the med school bestows.

This year, the school honored three American biomedical researchers, each of whom has not only made important contributions to medicine but has defined fields of scientific inquiry. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Dickson Prize ceremonies were not held in 2020 or 2021.

The winner of this year’s prize, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor at Stanford University, Carolyn Bertozzi, received the Dickson for her foundational work in bioorthogonal chemistry, which applies controlled chemical reactions within complex biological systems like the human body. It’s an entirely new field spanning biology and chemistry.

Bertozzi’s research on how sugar molecules on cell surfaces can be modified by chemical reactions within a living system led her to identify new approaches to treating cancer, inflammation and bacterial infections.

In her talk, Bertozzi likened the sugar molecules on the surface of cancer cells to an “unkempt tropical forest” as opposed to the orderly “well-manicured garden” on the surface of healthy cells. By devising a chemical reaction that works like an enzymatic lawn mower, trimming down messy sugar bushes growing from cancer cells, her group identified a new approach to immunotherapy that allows immune cells to recognize and destroy cancer cells.

The 2021 Dickson Prize winner, Cynthia Kenyon, is a trailblazer in her own right. Kenyon, who is the vice president of aging research at Calico Life Sciences and an emeritus professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California San Francisco, overturned the longstanding notion that aging does not have a genetic basis but is simply a result of a progressive decline.

“Aging was a cesspool of science at the time I started my career,” joked Kenyon during her lecture. Decades later, that notion has changed.

In 1993, Kenyon, who is also UCSF’s American Cancer Society Professor, discovered that a single mutation could double the lifespan of a healthy roundworm — a finding that revealed that genes, and the metabolic processes that they control, play an important part in how bodies age. Aging has since become an active field of study, attracting biotechnology investments and occupying the minds of thousands of scientists across the globe, all in pursuit of improving human quality of life.

The 2020 Dickson Prize winner, James Collins, who is the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared insights about the power of synthetic biology and deep learning to fight pathogens.

In 2000, his team birthed the discipline of synthetic biology with a paper about a stable gene circuit they created in bacteria. Collins has engineered artificial living systems for combatting rare metabolic and inflammatory diseases and cancer. His team has also built portable and precise systems that can rapidly detect infectious threats — like masks incorporating diagnostics that can let the wearers know whether they have COVID-19.

Several Pitt scientists also shared their work with the guests, giving talks on topics related to the keynotes, like synthetic biology for next-generation medical robotics by Warren Ruder, an associate professor of bioengineering, and weight loss and disease in aging by Aditi Gurkar, an assistant professor of medicine.

Gurkar posted on Twitter, “I got to spend the day with some amazing scientists, and I feel so inspired! This is why I love science.”


 — Anastasia Gorelova and Asher Jones, photography by Aimee Obidzinski

Pictured above from left: Anantha Shekhar, Carolyn Bertozzi, James Collins, Cynthia Kenyon and Patrick Gallagher.