THE 2016 MERCK RESEARCH MEDAL: BRETT COLLINS
Institute for Molecular Bioscience
University of Queensland
Associate Professor Brett Collins is a group leader and a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Career Development Fellow at the University of Queensland’s (UQ) Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB). He is a structural biologist and heads IMB’s Molecular Trafficking laboratory.
Brett completed his undergraduate studies in biochemistry at the University of New South Wales, and a PhD at Macquarie University’s School of Chemistry in 2001. Under the guidance of Professor Bridget Mabbutt, his research aimed to use NMR spectroscopy to determine structures of small proteins involved in RNA splicing. However, he soon discovered these proteins formed larger complexes, which required him to learn X-ray crystallography with help from Professor Paul Curmi. It seemed fate had intervened and set him on the path towards being a crystallographer.
In 2001, Brett moved to the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research in the UK under the mentorship of Professor David Owen. It was during his postdoctoral studies (2001–2006) that Brett became obsessed with how molecules were able to move around the cell – the process known as membrane trafficking.
After moving to UQ’s IMB in Brisbane (2006), Brett’s focus shifted towards understanding the molecular basis for intracellular trafficking from organelles called endosomes. This continues to be a major interest of his lab, alongside studies of membrane remodelling in unusual membrane structures called caveolae, and probing the basis of vesicular fusion in exocytosis. In recent years, Brett and his team have focused on the central role endosomal trafficking plays in neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In particular, his lab is at the forefront of structural studies of retromer and sorting nexin proteins, as they work to understand how mutations and dysregulation of these proteins lead to the onset of neurological and neurodegenerative diseases.
Brett’s research spans the complementary disciplines of structural biology, biomolecular interactions and cellular biology. His lab collaborates with cell biologists and neurobiologists around the world in an attempt to perform true structure-function analyses of protein complexes that are essential for human cellular physiology.
Brett has published over 65 papers in leading journals, including Nature, Cell, Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Developmental Cell and PNAS. He has received several prestigious fellowships, including an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship and two NHMRC Career Development Fellowships. In 2008, Brett received a UQ Foundation Research Excellence Award, and in 2015, he was awarded the Emerging Leader Award of the Australian and New Zealand Society for Cell and Developmental Biology (ANZSCDB).