Nichols elected to Royal Society


Colin Nichols, PhD, the Carl F. Cori Professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has been elected to the Royal Society, an honorary English organization equivalent to the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.

Nichols, a professor of cell biology and physiology, is also director of the Center for the Investigation of Membrane Excitability Diseases at the university.

“Being a Royal Society member is something that I remember imagining as a child would be very cool,” said Nichols, who was born in Leicester, England. “It’s quite an honor, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Established in 1660, the Royal Society says its fellowship is composed of the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Members have included the famed architect Christopher Wren and legendary physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton.

The society recognizes outstanding achievement in research, advises the government on science policy and promotes general interest in science, as the National Academy of Sciences does in the United States.

Nichols studies ion channels, which are molecules on the surfaces of cells. These channels let charged particles pass into and out of cells and play critical roles in processes from thoughts to movement.

He uses computer, cellular and animal models to probe the structure, function and regulation of the channels, which regulate what cells do by controlling their electrical polarity.

For example, Nichols has selectively expressed ion channels in a mouse’s heart tissue and used them to model the electrical derangements that occur in heart arrhythmias.

Nichols mutated an ion channel active in the pancreas of mice and predicted the mutation’s effects would lead to diabetes in the mice. It caused severe neonatal diabetes, leading him to predict correctly that defects in the channel would cause similar diabetes in humans.

Confirmation of this hypothesis by Nichols and others has changed our understanding of what causes neonatal diabetes. As a result, the condition now is treated differently, with a daily pill instead of three-times-daily injections of insulin.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.