Optogenetics Scientists Take 2021 Lasker Prize for Basic Research 

Alicia Ault

September 28, 2021

Three researchers who have been integral to the discovery and development of using light-sensitive proteins to determine the function of neurons ­— and possibly control them — have won the 2021 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

The technique, known as optogenetics, has been adopted by laboratories around the globe to help assess what's at play in neurological disease and mental illness.

In May, Swiss researchers reported that, using optogenetics, they had partially restored sight in a man who was losing his vision as a result of retinitis pigmentosa.

One of the Lasker winners, Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, Stanford, California, said that he has been particularly interested in using optogenetics to increase the understanding of psychiatric disease.

"Due to our limited understanding, these disorders continue to cause worldwide morbidity and mortality comparable to, or greater than, that of any other illness," said Deisseroth, in accepting the award.

With optogenetics, "we now can approach causal and material understanding of psychiatric disease-related states, such as anxiety and dissociation, at the level of highly-resolved physical components," he said.

"The hope brought to psychiatry by detailed studies of microbial membrane proteins is an uplifting story for all to share," Deisseroth added.

"The Might of Light"

Optogenetics has "become part of the standard repertoire of thousands of neuroscience groups and has largely replaced the use of conventional electrical stimulation electrodes for activating neural pathways," Michael Häusser, PhD, wrote in an article entitled "The Might of Light" and published online September 24 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The technique developed by the Lasker award winners, especially Deisseroth, "are revealing how specific pathways may contribute to Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, anxiety, depression, and other neurologic and psychiatric disorders," Häusser, a professor at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, University College London, United Kingdom, added.

Sharing the $250,000 prize with Deisseroth are Dieter Oesterhelt, PhD, emeritus director at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany; and Peter Hegemann, PhD, of Humboldt University in Berlin.

Optogenetics is based on Oesterhelt's discovery in the 1970s of retinal, a vitamin A-based compound that joins with proteins called opsins, in Halobacterium salinarum. Both retinal and opsins are involved in the visual process of most vertebrates, but it was a surprise to find retinal in bacteria. Oesterhelt's work was thus met with scepticism.

He later showed that the newly named "bacteriorhodopsin" was sensitive to light.  hat, along with the later discovery of a second bacterial opsin — halorhodopsin — helped build the foundation for optogenetics.

"I'm very grateful for the opportunity that this award gives us to look back to the discovery decades ago of the first microbial rhodopsin all the way up to the wide use of channel rhodopsin in neuroscience and then forward to the promise of clinical applications of optogenetics," said Hegemann, in accepting the award and acknowledging his former mentor Oesterhelt's contributions.

Research Pioneer

Hegemann also lauded Deisseroth, a longtime friend and collaborator.

"Karl is to be commended for transferring the knowledge about channel rhodopsins to the neuroscience community," he added.

Deisseroth pioneered the use of gene transfer to implant the building blocks of the channel rhodopsin gene into neurons. That allows researchers to essentially flip a switch to turn various neurons on or off, and thus, see which are or are not activated during various behaviors or processes.

For instance, in one experiment in 2007, Deisseroth delivered the channel rhodopsin gene to a part of a mouse's brain that controlled whisker movement. When light was delivered through an optical fiber that had also been implanted, the whiskers twitched, according to the Lasker foundation.

Deisseroth has won numerous awards for his optogenetics-related discoveries going back to the mid-2000s, including the Adolf Meyer Award for lifetime achievement from the American Psychiatric Association in 2015; the Rumford Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2018 (which was shared with Hegemann, Gero Miesenböck and four others); the Kyoto Prize in 2018; and the Heineken Prize from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2020.

Hegemann has also been the recipient of multiple awards, including the Warren Alpert Foundation prize in 2019, which was shared with Deisseroth and Miesenböck.

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA, Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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