Deisseroth wins $3 million Breakthrough Prize

Initiated in 2013 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the annual award — the world’s largest in dollar terms — honors pioneers in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics.

Karl Deisseroth received $3 million in unrestricted prize money for his role in the development of optogenetics.
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Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, is the winner of a $3 million 2016 Breakthrough Prize in life sciences for his contributions to the development of optogenetics, a technique that uses light to control the behavior of cells and has proved especially invaluable in the study of nerve-cell circuits in the brain.

The award was presented tonight at a private black-tie, red-carpet ceremony in an airplane hangar at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. Actor and television producer Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated TV series Family Guy, was master of ceremonies for the event; singer and songwriter Pharrell Williams performed. Many Silicon Valley and Hollywood luminaries were in attendance. The Breakthrough Prizes, initiated in 2013, honor prominent individuals in the fields of life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics. Deisseroth was among three Stanford scientists honored at this year’s event.

“The suffering of the mentally ill and the mysteries of the brain are so deep that, to make progress, we need to take big risks and blind leaps,” Deisseroth said in his acceptance speech. “The members of my lab have taken a leap: borrowing genes from microbes to control the brain.”

In an interview, Deisseroth said, “Optogenetics’ biggest impact by far has been in enabling thousands of discoveries about how neural circuits control behavior. I hope this technology will continue to be used to discover many more principles of nervous-system function, in health and in neurological and psychiatric disease.”

Deisseroth will join this year’s other Breakthrough Prize winners in giving lectures Nov. 9 at a symposium at the University of California-Berkeley. He is one of five prizewinners in the life-sciences category, each of whom received $3 million in unrestricted funds.

Optogenetics is a breakthrough laboratory methodology that allows scientists to precisely manipulate nerve-cell activity in freely moving animals to study their behavior. Optogenetics uses light to control the messages traveling along selected nerve cells and pathways. First, genetic-engineering techniques are employed to insert genes for photosensitive proteins called microbial opsins into the nerve cells of living animals. The genes are bioengineered so that the opsins coat the surfaces of designated nerve cells. As a result, signaling by these selected nerve cells can be activated or inhibited by pulses of laser light that, at the flip of the experimenter’s switch, are transmitted by a hair-thin optical fiber implanted in a laboratory animal’s brain. Scientists can observe the effects of these manipulations on the animal’s behavior and deduce the role played by particular nerve cells, relays and circuits.

Deisseroth and his wife, Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, attend the Nov. 8 awards ceremony.

Psychiatrist and bioengineer

“The human brain has been called the most complicated object in the universe, but that hasn’t daunted Karl’s quest to understand it,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “If anything it seems the challenge has inspired him to develop techniques to see inside this most important of black boxes. This passion to understand the mind, combined with his intelligence and creativity, led to his pioneering role in creating optogenetics.”

Minor also noted that Deisseroth is a practicing psychiatrist who sees patients as well as a bioengineer, which “exemplifies Stanford Medicine’s unique ability to bring together research, patient care and teaching.”

Deisseroth, who is the D. H. Chen Professor and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has won numerous prizes for his pioneering work, most recently the prestigious Albany Award and the National Institutes of Health’s Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences, both awarded this year. He serves on the advisory committee of the White House BRAIN Initiative.

In total, close to $22 million was awarded at the ceremony. There were seven $3 million awards, one of which will be split among some 1,300 physicists; $500,000 split among eight early-career researchers; and $400,000 to a high school student.

The two other Stanford scientists received New Horizons in Physics Awards, each of which is paired with a $100,000 prize. Xiao-Liang Qi, PhD, an associate professor of physics, was recognized for “outstanding contributions to condensed matter physics, especially involving the use of topology to understand new states of matter.” Leonardo Senatore, PhD, an assistant professor of physics, was honored for his “outstanding contributions to theoretical cosmology.” The prizes, funded by the Milner Foundation, go annually to promising junior researchers who have already produced important work.

"The Breakthrough Prize recognizes contributions to science that will inspire and encourage others. The innovative work of professors Deisseroth, Qi and Senatore indeed ignites that thrill of discovery as they seek to solve the greatest mysteries within our vast universe, and within the universe of our brain," said Stanford President John Hennessy, PhD. "Karl Deisseroth's pioneering work in optogenetics proves the value of tackling deep problems across disciplines. And we are immensely proud that two physics faculty members, still at the outset of their promising careers, have been recognized as catalysts in their field. On behalf of the entire Stanford community, I congratulate them all and thank them for their brilliant example."

The annual Breakthrough Prizes are funded by grants from the Brin Wojcicki Foundation, established by Google founder Sergey Brin and 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki; Mark Zuckerberg's fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s foundation; and DST Global founder Yuri Milner’s foundation. Recipients are chosen by committees comprised of prior prizewinners.

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