Karl Deisseroth wins 2016 Massry Prize for pioneering optogenetics work

The psychiatrist and bioengineer is being honored for his groundbreaking work in creating a viable technique for installing light-driven “on” and “off” switches on the surfaces of nerve cells, enabling investigators to learn exactly what they do.

- By Bruce Goldman

Karl Deisseroth

Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, has been named a recipient of this year’s Massry Prize for his pioneering efforts in the development of a breakthrough technology called optogenetics.

Deisseroth, who is the D.H. Chen Professor, shares the prize with two other researchers: Peter Hegemann, PhD, professor and chief of biophysics at the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany; and Gero Miesenboeck, MD, professor of physiology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. The three scientists will split the $200,000 honorarium accompanying the award.

“It’s a wonderful honor to share this prize with my colleagues Peter and Gero, and to recognize here also the students and postdocs in my lab over the past 12 years who have so creatively discovered, developed and applied the fundamental elements of optogenetics,” Deisseroth said.

Optogenetics entails the installation of light-sensitive proteins, derived from microbes and delivered via gene vectors, on the surface of selected cells in a living, freely moving mammal. As a result, these cells can be either excited or inhibited by specific frequencies of laser light, which is delivered via a surgically implanted optical fiber.

The ability to turn on or turn off electrical activity in a precisely defined set of cells in selected parts of the brain allows researchers to gain insights into not only the causal mechanisms behind the organ’s normal workings but also the defects in function that accompany brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, depression and schizophrenia. Optogenetics has also been used to turn on and off electrical activity in heart and kidney cells, as well as in other tissues.

Deisseroth has received many previous awards for his work in optogenetics, most recently a $3 million Breakthrough Prize, initiated by a consortium of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, in 2015.

The Massry Prize, sponsored by the Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation and administered by the University of Southern California, has been awarded annually since 1996. The list of previous winners includes three Stanford School of Medicine faculty members: James Spudich, PhD, professor of biochemistry; Andrew Fire, PhD, professor of pathology and of genetics; and Roger Kornberg, PhD, professor of structural biology. Twelve Massry Prize recipients, including Fire and Kornberg, have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize.

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