Some of the world’s leading robotics and artificial intelligence pioneers are calling on the United Nations to ban the development and us...
domenica 15 novembre 2015
engineer James Collins designs genetic circuits with novel functions.
arriving at MIT last December, James Collins’ biggest challenge has
been finding time to take on all of the research projects that appeal
truly an embarrassment of riches here in terms of opportunities,”
says Collins, the Termeer Professor of Bioengineering, who joined MIT
after 24 years at Boston University. “Kendall Square has such a
high density of great institutions and great people. We’re spoiled
here. You can just go walk for lunch and bump into world-class
a pioneer in biomedical engineering and synthetic biology, decided to
move across the Charles River to become part of MIT’s Institute for
Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological
Engineering. Since then, he has also joined forces with the Broad
Institute and the Ragon Institute of Harvard, MIT and MGH, which is
working to develop HIV vaccines.
has deployed an army of about 35 young scientists spread among three
labs — at MIT, the Broad Institute, and Harvard’s Wyss Institute
for Biologically Inspired Engineering — to tackle diverse projects
such as combating antibiotic resistance, designing new diagnostic
devices, and engineering microbes to help fight disease.
of these projects build on Collins’ central interest in engineering
cells to perform useful functions. “We’re looking to engineer
biology by creating synthetic gene circuits that can be used to
reprogram and rewire cells,” he says.
in New York City, Collins moved to New Hampshire with his family at
the age of 10. His father, an aviation engineer, worked on projects
for NASA and the military. Collins became interested in medical
engineering after both of his grandfathers became disabled: One lost
his vision and the other suffered a series of strokes.
was struck by the fact that there was all this fantastic technology
for shooting stuff into the sky and out of the sky, and little if
anything was being done for these guys to restore the functions they
had lost,” he says.
earning an undergraduate degree in physics from the College of the
Holy Cross, Collins won a Rhodes Scholarship to study medical
engineering at Oxford University.
Boston University, where he joined the faculty in 1990, Collins
studied how people walk, run, and maintain balance, which led to the
development of vibrating insoles that help people improve their
balance. “We could take a 75-year-old and have them balance as well
as a 25-year-old,” he says. He also worked on devices to improve
locomotion, neural function, and cardiac function.
the mid-1990s, colleagues encouraged Collins to try bringing his
engineering and physics expertise into the field of molecular
biology. He and other pioneers of synthetic biology started trying to
design genetic circuits to perform new and useful functions inside
MIT, he is now engineering viruses and bacteria that can detect and
kill harmful organisms such as Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera,
or bacteria that contribute to inflammatory bowel disease. These
engineered microbes could also be programmed to attack tumors.
another project, Collins is working on detaching engineered genetic
circuits from living cells. Paper or cloth spotted with cell extracts
— consisting of enzymes, ribosomes, nucleic acids, and other cell
components — could be used as cheap and rapid programmable
diagnostics for diseases including Ebola, Lyme disease, and
inflammatory bowel disease, Collins says.
key research area in Collins’ lab is systems biology — the
computational modeling of the complex interactions within and among
living cells. Working with the Center for Microbiome Informaticsand
Therapeutics at IMES, as well as Graham Walker, an MIT professor of
biology, he is trying to figure out the details of how bacteria
respond to antibiotics, with an eye toward developing new ways to
enhance the performance of existing drugs.
goal is not so much to come up with new standalone antibiotics, but
new molecules that could boost the effectiveness of what we have.
This would enable us to re-sensitize resistant strains to the
antibiotics to which they’ve grown resistant, and to broadly
increase the efficacy of our existing antibiotics,” he says.
and colleagues discovered that bacteria’s metabolic state —
including how much energy they are using and producing, and whether
they are dormant or dividing — has a significant influence on their
susceptibility to antibiotics. They have also found that by altering
microbes’ metabolic state, they can make them more susceptible to
existing antibiotics, especially for persistent infections such as
tuberculosis and strep throat.
has largely been overlooked by the drug discovery community and the
clinical community, but we think it’s a gold mine that can be
harnessed to boost our existing arsenal of antibiotics,” Collins