The first edition of the Avanti Polar Lipids-IUPAB Medal and Prize has been awarded to Prof. Anthony Watts for his pioneering contributions to biophysical research on membranes especially with the use of novel NMR techniques.
Tony Watts graduated from Leeds University, UK with a BSc and PhD in biophysics. After 5 years working at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics, Göttingen, Germany studying lipid-protein interactions using functional studies combined with EPR and nitroxide spin labels, he was appointed to a tenure track position at Oxford University in 1980. Here he progressed to a full Professorship in 1996 and also secured, in 1983, and held the C. W. Maplethorpe endowed Fellowship at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, eventually becoming Vice-Principal.
In Oxford, Tony was a pioneer in the development of solid state NMR for biological systems, predominantly membranes. This work involved not only customization of NMR instrumentation for (lossy) biological systems, high fields (the first commercial wide bore 800MHz) as well as novel isotopic substitution chemistry to include NMR visible nuclei, especially deuterium and 13C into, especially, lipids, drugs and ligands. Some of these nitroxide and NMR labelled compounds are available today from Avanti. Tony holds patents covering new synthetic routes, as well as for lipid use in the food and leather industries, as evidence of translational applications.
More recently, Tony’s research has focussed on the development and characterization of polymer stabilized lipid nanoparticle technology to deliver drugs in a clinical context, and for (detergent-free) structural biology. Mass spec of lipids from an in vivo system (C. elegans) without compromising viability using polymer extraction, also shows promise for characterizing disease. The polymer technology has also enhanced crystallographic studies of novel photoreceptors, resulting in very high resolution receptor structures.
In all his research, functional characterization of a system has been a pre-requisite, despite the many challenges and difficulties in achieving this aim. Over 120 post-docs, almost 70 graduates and 10s of sabbatical workers, several from Brazil, have been trained and spent time in his lab. He was elected as a Fellows of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Society of Biology, Institute of Physics (London) and the Biophysical Society, being one of the first non-US Fellows of the Society. Editorial work has included Biophysical Chemistry (9 years, managing editor), the European Biophysical Journal (15 years, managing editor), Biophysical Journal (6 years, associate editor) and he co-edits the Nature-Springer Encyclopaedia of Biophysics. He was chair (2000-2007; 2009-2017) of the British Biophysical Society (BBS) and President (2017-2019) of the European Biophysical Societies Association (EBSA), and is now an Honorary member of BBS and EBSA.
Prof. Watts is at University of Oxford, Department of Biochemistry.