2017 Alexandra Cohen Emerging Leader Award recipient, James J. Collins, PhD
Core Faculty, Wyss Institute, Harvard University; Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering & Science; Professor of Biological Engineering, MIT

Dr. Collins and his lab work in synthetic biology and systems biology, with a particular focus on using network biology approaches to study antibiotic action, bacterial defense mechanisms, and the emergence of resistance. Professor Collins’s patented technologies have been licensed by over 25 biotech, pharma and medical devices companies, and he has received numerous awards and honors, including a Rhodes Scholarship and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. Professor Collins is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a charter fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. He received his AB in Physics at Holy Cross, where he was valedictorian, and his PhD in Medical Engineering at Oxford. His project, detailed below, was selected for the 2017 Alexandra Cohen Emerging Leader Award, a $250,000 grant.

Project Overview
Dr. Collins’s ELA project focuses on highly sensitive, paper-based, direct detection RNA-based diagnostics for Borrelia burgdorferi and early Lyme disease. The amount of borrelial RNA in a blood sample of a patient with Lyme is likely to be present in much larger quantities than the DNA, making direct detection of the pathogen easier. His lab recently developed a platform for direct detection of RNA that combines programmable molecular sensors called RNA toehold switches with an expression system that can be freeze dried onto paper discs. Toehold switch sensors are synthetic regulators that control the translation of a gene, and these can be designed to bind and sense any RNA sequence.