Dean for Research Award for Distinguished Innovation awarded to Zemer Gitai for antibiotic-searching platform

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
Oct. 12, 2022

In recognition of the importance to society of innovative research and scholarship, the 2022 Dean for Research Award for Distinguished Innovation will be awarded to Zemer Gitai, Princeton’s Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology and a professor of molecular biology, for a new drug-discovery platform that searches out drug candidates with unique or novel mechanisms of action.

The innovation optimizes researchers’ ability to discover medicines that fight disease via previously undiscovered strategies. Gitai and his team are applying the approach to the search for more effective antibiotics.

The award will be presented at Celebrate Princeton Innovation, an event honoring faculty and other researchers whose work has the potential to benefit society, on October 13, 2022.

Now it its third year, the Dean for Research Award for Distinguished Innovation recognizes a technology or innovation led by a Princeton faculty member whose scholarly activity and creative thinking provides solutions to societal challenges. The award is part of the University’s commitment to fostering a culture of innovation and raising the visibility of Princeton’s innovators. 

“Open to all Princeton faculty, across all disciplines, this award acknowledges the vital importance of bringing University research to bear on the challenges facing our world, and placing that research in the service of humanity,” said Pablo Debenedetti, Princeton’s dean for research and the Class of 1950 Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, and a professor of chemical and biological engineering.

Resistance to existing antibiotics is fueling a growing public health crisis, yet research to discover new classes of antibiotics has declined in recent years. Most antibiotics approved in recent years are variants of older drugs.

Gitai’s team is pioneering methods specific to the discovery of antibiotics with previously unknown tactics for targeting bacteria. The team combines two techniques -- quantitative imaging and machine learning -- to discover molecules that kill bacteria. The resulting drug discovery pipeline can rapidly characterize how drugs work.

The team is developing the technology through a startup, ArrePath, that has attracted investment in the form of a $20 million seed round. The company will aims to discovery new antibiotics as well as pioneer additional machine learning-based methods that could be extended to other diseases.

Gitai’s work on antibiotic discovery has been recognized through his awarding of the National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award and Transformative Research Award.

Since joining Princeton’s Molecular Biology department in 2005, Zemer Gitai has established himself as a pioneering innovator in the exploration of new methods of drug discovery. Gitai has received the Beckman Young Investigator Award and the Human Frontier Science Program Young Investigator Award. Zemer also served as the director of graduate studies for the Department of Molecular Biology from 2012 to 2018.

Prior recipients of the Dean for Research Award for Distinguished Innovation include, in 2020, Robert Prud’homme, professor of chemical and biological engineering, who received the inaugural award for the invention of flash nanoprecipitation, a method of creating nanoparticles for targeted delivery of medications. The 2021 award was given to Mohammad Seyedsayamdost, professor of chemistry, for a system for discovering entirely new classes of antibiotics.