Karl Deisseroth wins prestigious Albany Prize

The bioengineer and psychiatrist will be honored for his seminal role in the field of optogenetics, which allows scientists to precisely manipulate nerve-cell activity in freely moving animals to study their behavior.

Karl Deisseroth

Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, will receive the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research for his pioneering work in optogenetics.

Deisseroth is a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. He also holds the D.H. Chen Professorship. He will share the $500,000 prize with Sunney Xie, PhD, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, who is a pioneer of single-molecule biophysical chemistry and its application to biology.

The two will be presented with the prize at a ceremony and press conference in Albany, New York, on May 15.

“Dr. Deisseroth’s groundbreaking work in optogenetics presents enormous potential in this young and emerging field,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “Optogenetics offers great hope for basic research and future clinical applications to improve human health. We congratulate Dr. Deisseroth on this impressive and well-deserved honor.”

Optogenetics involves positioning photosensitive proteins on the surfaces of nerve cells in particular brain tracts or circuits. This enables scientists to study the brains of living animals with high precision.

Funded by a $50 million gift from New York City philanthropist Morris Silverman, the Albany Prize has been awarded since 2001 to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving health care and promoting biomedical research with translational benefits for better patient care. It is the largest cash prize given in biomedicine nationwide.

Optogenetics offers great hope for basic research and future clinical applications to improve human health.

“It’s a great honor to receive this prize,” Deisseroth said. “The recognition of optogenetics is not only a testament to the creativity and vigor of everyone in the lab and our collaborators over the last decade or more, but also a signal to the world beyond the scientific community regarding the importance of basic science research to understanding the biology of health and disease.”

Developed over the last 10 years, optogenetics mixes optics, genetic engineering and several other disciplines. It uses light to control the messages traveling along our nerves. The key to its efficacy is the use of genetic-engineering techniques to insert the genes for photosensitive proteins called microbial opsins into specified nerve cells in living animals. As a result, these opsins wind up coating the surfaces of the designated nerve cells, whose signaling can then be activated or inhibited by pulses of laser light transmitted by hair-thin optical fiber.

Scientists can then observe the effects of these manipulations on animals’ behavior and deduce the role played by particular nerve cells, relays and circuits.

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