Princeton University professor discovers clues to Alzheimer’s disease, wins largest unrestricted scientific prize

Princeton University professor Clifford Brangwynne has won America’s largest unrestricted scientific prize for his discovery that upends previous understandings of the internal organization of cells.PHOTO COURTESY OF BLAVATNIK AWARDS
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Princeton University professor Clifford Brangwynne has won America’s largest unrestricted scientific prize for his discovery that upends previous understandings of the internal organization of cells.PHOTO COURTESY OF BLAVATNIK AWARDS

Princeton University’s Clifford Brangwynne has won America’s largest unrestricted scientific prize for his discovery that upends previous understandings of the internal organization of cells.

Brangwynne, a chemical and biological engineering professor, has been named the 2020 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists Laureate in Life Sciences and will thus receive $250,000, the largest unrestricted scientific prize offered to America’s most-promising, young faculty-level scientific researchers.

Brangwynne’s award-winning work is based on the clues to Alzheimer’s disease and ALS revealed in the physics of cells, according to the New York Academy of Sciences and the Blavatnik Family Foundation, which jointly issued the award.

Brangwynne discovered that inside cells, biomolecules can merge to form liquid-like droplets that allow for the localization and compartmentalization of molecular interactions. The ability of these droplets to smoothly fuse and separate is critical for cell division and the development of embryos. Errors in this physical property may result in the formation of solid structures, such as the tangles and fibers found in Alzheimer’s disease, which can cause cell damage and death, according to the provided information.

Brangwynne’s background in materials science and soft matter physics enabled the discovery and understanding of how these condensates form through liquid-liquid phase separation and how condensates function in cells, according to the information. He was a postdoctoral researcher for the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems in Germany. He received his PhD from Harvard University and his Bachelor of Science from Carnegie Mellon University.He is also an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, focusing on molecular and cellular biology.Since Brangwynne’s discovery, labs throughout the world have discovered new types of membrane-less condensates, as well as the repercussions of related pathological phase transitions, according to the statement. Improper phase separation can lead to neurodegenerative diseases. For example, when biomolecules within these droplets are unable to separate they can form stiff fibers and tangles that cause neuronal damage found in Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be chosen as a Blavatnik National Awards Laureate. The recognition of this new field at the interface of cell biology and soft matter physics inspires my lab to continue breaking the barriers separating scientific disciplines,” Brangwynne said in the statement.