Clifford Brangwynne, professor of chemical and biological engineering, has been appointed the inaugural director of the Princeton Bioengineering Initiative. This initiative will support and expand the bioengineering activities already underway at the University, and ignite new directions in research, education and innovation at the intersection of the life sciences and engineering.
The Bioengineering Initiative will, with continued fundraising, lead to a bioengineering institute and a new building to house the institute and catalyze interdisciplinary research across Princeton in this important area, said Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering.
“Bioengineering is one of the most exciting frontiers in engineering, with unlimited potential for positive impact on health, medicine and quality of life,” Goldsmith said. “This initiative will greatly increase our delivery of innovations, consistent with our mission to develop research and technology that benefits humanity, while also creating wonderful education opportunities for students. And Cliff, with his amazing track record of discovery, innovation and leadership, is just the person to lead and grow the initiative.”
The initiative was launched Friday, Nov. 20, at the Princeton Bioengineering Symposium, a one-day online event to highlight discovery, innovation and academic-industry partnerships centered around Princeton’s growing bioengineering program. This event, free and open to the public, featured speakers from academia and industry.
According to Brangwynne, the vision behind the initiative is driven by the potential for transformative synergy between bioengineering and a broad cross-section of Princeton’s research activities. These include biomedical devices and other technologies that interface with biological systems; data science approaches in biology and medicine; and biomolecular, cellular and tissue engineering for human health. These efforts will both depend upon and help find answers to the vast number of open questions about how biological systems work and interact.
“The world needs problem-solvers in the life sciences space,” Brangwynne said. “Just look around us. Our whole world has been turned upside down by a nanometer-sized particle of biological matter that has swept across the globe and killed a million people. The COVID-19 pandemic is just one example. Think about cancer, dementia — these are diseases that have devastating effects in society. The Princeton Bioengineering Initiative is all about bringing an engineering mindset to face these challenges. Engineers are problem solvers.”
At the same time, Brangwynne said, problem-solving goes hand-in-hand with fundamental discovery about how biological systems work. “We still don’t fully understand biological systems,” he said. “Even the most humble single-celled organism is vastly more complex than anything humans can engineer. So we need to understand how these systems work, to utilize living systems and the principles behind their operation for various applications. But there is no question that we are at a turning point in terms of the ability to harness biological systems for the good of humanity.”
Among the initiative’s initial activities will be to bring together a wide range of academic and industry researchers and policymakers as well as to support young investigators, Brangwynne said. An important part of the work will be to advance innovation and entrepreneurship and to build stronger ties to the region’s biotech and pharmaceutical industries. “The intersection of life sciences and engineering is one of the most exciting areas for future technologies, so this initiative will dovetail nicely with efforts [Vice Dean for Innovation] Rodney Priestley is spearheading.”
Brangwynne joined the Princeton faculty in 2011 and has been widely recognized for discovering a previously unknown type of structure within cells that affect a wide range of basic functions in living organisms. Specifically, he pioneered the study of membrane-less structures made of condensed biomolecular liquids, which are now thought to play important roles in normal cell functions and numerous diseases. He has received numerous honors for this work, including a 2018 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and an appointment as an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Most recently, he won the Nakasone award from the Human Frontier Science Program. To accelerate the translation of findings from his lab into medical treatments, Brangwynne recently cofounded a company, Nereid Therapeutics, to develop medicines for cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and other diseases.