Two CCB faculty elected to the National Academy of Medicine

October 19, 2020
Black and white photos of David and Xiaowei overlaid on a blue background

David Liu and Xiaowei Zhuang are two of 100 new members elected to the NAM this year



Today, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) announced the election of 100 new members. Professors David R. Liu and Xiaowei Zhuang, two faculty members in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, are among the 100. Considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine, membership recognizes individuals like Liu and Zhuang who demonstrate outstanding professional achievement and a commitment to service.

“This distinguished and diverse class of new members is a truly exceptional group of scholars and leaders whose expertise in science, medicine, health, and policy will be integral to helping the NAM address today’s most pressing health challenges and inform the future of health and health care for the benefit of everyone around the globe,” said National Academy of Medicine President Victor J. Dzau in a NAM press release. “It is my privilege to welcome these esteemed individuals to the National Academy of Medicine.”


A black and white photo of David on a colorful background
"Well deserved," wrote Stuart Schreiber to congratulate David Liu (pictured here) on Twitter, "not only for transformative science but also mentorship, leadership and guidance for the nation through the pandemic."


David Liu, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences, a member of the Broad Institute, and a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator earned his membership for “creatively using principles of evolution to study biology and medicine, including the development of base editing and prime editing to modify genomes with unprecedented precision, the development of DNAtemplated and DNAencoded synthesis to facilitate drug discovery, and the development of phageassisted continuous evolution (PACE) to speed protein evolution dramatically.”

Liu is often credited with inventing CRISPR 2.0, turning previously pencil-like genetic editors into microprocessors capable of cleaning up bad genetic code with far more finesse, including fewer off-target results. To do that, he invented a novel way to speed up protein evolution—PACE—and find the best tools to push genetic editing closer to safe use in human patients.

Most recently, his work reduced an elusive type of off-target editing by 10- to 100- fold, making new variants that are especially promising for treating human disease. He also designed a new generation of the all-star CRISPR-Cas9 proteins capable of targeting a much larger fraction of pathogenic mutations, including one responsible for sickle cell anemia.

“Since the era of human genome editing is in its fragile beginnings, it’s important that we do everything we can to minimize the risk of any adverse effects when we start to introduce these into people,” said Liu in an article about the advances. “Minimizing this kind of elusive off-target editing is an important step toward achieving that goal.”

Just this summer, Liu achieved two more firsts: He and then-graduate student Wei Hsi Yeh, restored partial hearing to mice with a recessive mutation in the gene TMC1 that causes complete deafness, the first successful example of genome editing to fix a recessive disease-causing mutation. And, he engineered a new molecular editor that can make precise changes in mitochondrial DNA, creating a potential route to solving genetic changes associated with cancer, aging, and more.

Stuart Schreiber, the Morris Loeb Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, said to C&EN magazine, “He [Liu] is one of the most intellectually curious persons I know.”


A black and white photo of Xiaowei over a colorful background
Xiaowei Zhuang (pictured here) has already earned a vast number of awards for her inventions in super-resolution imaging technologies, which she has used to uncover biological mysteries.


Xiaowei Zhuang, the David B. Arnold Professor of Science, earned her membership for “pioneering super-resolution imaging and imaging-based single-cell genomics, and for using these methods to uncover novel structures in cells, novel spatial and functional organization of cells in tissues, and examples of how misregulation may cause disorders.”

Zhuang’s inventions in imaging technology provided the first high-resolution, genomic scale observations of individual molecules in cells. Using one of her inventions called STORM, a super-resolution imaging method, she captured images of novel cell structures like periodic membrane skeleton in neurons; with another invention, MERFISH, a single-cell transcriptome and genome imaging method, she was able to capture thousands of genes simultaneously in one image. So far, Zhuang has used MERFISH to identify novel types of neurons in mouse brains and traced connections between neural cell structures and behaviors. The Human Cell Atlas project, an international effort to catalog human cell types, relies on MERFISH as a key tool to accelerate research.

Most recently, Zhuang and her lab invented DNA helicopters to capture the first recorded rotational steps of a molecular motor as it moves from one DNA base pair to another. She also developed a fluorescence imaging method to visualize the positions of more than 1,000 loci across the human genome, which could help determine how genome organization affects gene-expression patterns in different cell types.

“Sometimes the most compelling demonstration of the power of a method is not how beautiful the images are but the major discoveries you make with it,” Zhuang said in a recent C&EN article.

When Jan Vilcek, cofounder and chairman of the Vilcek Foundation, awarded Zhuang a Vilcek Foundation Prize in February 2020, he said in a press release, “The imaging tools [Zhuang] has developed have changed how we see and understand the structures and basic functions of living organisms at a molecular level, fundamentally expanding research horizons and possibilities.”

Established originally as the Institute of Medicine in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine addresses critical issues in health, science, medicine, and related policy and inspires positive actions across sectors. NAM works alongside the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering to provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation and conduct other activities to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine also encourage education and research, recognize outstanding contributions to knowledge, and increase public understanding of STEMM. With their election, NAM members make a commitment to volunteer their service in National Academies activities.