Massry Prize winners speak on optogenetics- a breakthrough technology in brain research

Gero Misenboeck, MD, physiology professor at University of Oxford.  Portrait by Mike Saijo
Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, professor bioengineering & psychiatry & behavioral sciences, Stanford University. Art by Mike Saijo
Peter Hegemann, PhD. professor of biophysics at Humboldt University of Berlin.  Portrait by Mike Saijo
USC students, faculty and guests meet with Dr. Shaul Massry (sitting right of center)
"A Different Kind of Art" exhibition Artists: Joanna Kos, Naomi Scully, Alex Maroutian
The Lectures in Mayer Auditorium
Reception- Scientists enjoy discussing the art
October 20, 2016 - 1:30pm
Mayer Auditorium on the USC Health Sciences Campus

The winners of the 2016 Meira and Shaul G. Massry Prize are a trio of scientists — Gero Miesenboeck, Peter Hegemann and Karl Deisseroth — whose research paved the way for a breakthrough technology called optogenetics that has revolutionized the way scientists study the brain.

Optogenetics allows scientists to turn on and turn off electrical activity in specific brain cells by introducing photosensitive proteins that make them react when exposed to light. Optogenetics made it possible to study the role of specific neurons in both normal brain function and disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, depression and schizophrenia.

The winners of this year’s Massry Prize gave lectures about their work at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 20 in Mayer Auditorium on the Health Sciences Campus.  To view slide show & captions, click on top photo, then proceed by clicking arrow at top right of photo.  Photos by Kamil Kos

“The fundamental findings of Miesenboeck, Hegemann and Deisseroth, which enabled neuronal function to be controlled through optogenetics, have now become a crucial tool to understand how neurons work, at the single cell and with groups of neurons working together,” said Shaul Massry, MD, professor emeritus of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Scientists all over the world routinely use the optogenetic technology that was developed by these eminent scientists and collaborators. This field has become one of the most interesting and exciting areas of neuroscience.”

The Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation established the Massry Prize in 1996 to recognize contributions to the biomedical sciences and the advancement of health.

Miesenboeck, MD, a physiology professor at the University of Oxford, was the first to genetically modify a brain cell so that its electrical activity could be controlled with light by altering them with opsin proteins from the retina of a fruit fly.

Hegemann, PhD, professor of biophysics at the Humboldt University of Berlin, discovered that green algae possessed a type of light-sensitive molecule that gave it the ability to move toward light in spite of having no eyes and no evidence of opsin receptors. These proteins, called channelrhodopsins, made cells respond to flashes of blue light, converting light into electricity in a single step at the speed of electrical impulses in the brain.

Deisseroth, MD, PhD, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, combined these findings by introducing channelrhodopsins into the brain cells of mice. Using flashes of light delivered via optic wires inserted into the mouse’s brain, he was able to turn on certain cells in the mouse’s brain that induced specific behaviors.

Portraits of prizewinners Miesenboeck, Hegemann and Deisseroth were created by USC IGM Art Gallery Advisory Council Member, Chair of the Young Professionals Committee and Artist in Residence, Mike Saijo.  Artworks from the IGM Art Gallery exhibition, A Different Kind of Light, by Artists Naomi Scully, Alexandre Maroutian, Joanna Kos and Kamil Kos were displayed in a pop up exhibition in the Mayer Auditorium Lobby to demonstrate the links between optogenetics,  the art/science nexus and the responses of brain cells to light and resultant behavioral outcomes.  Answers were given, questions raised about the boundaries of human control and genetic modification. Awareness was raised regarding bioengineering for understanding,  learning, raising awareness, being curious and being responsible stewards of self, others and basic natural systemic process.

The Meira and Shaul G. Massry Prize is sponsored by the Keck School of Medicine’s Dean’s Office and hosted by the Institute for Genetic Medicine.

by Hope Hamashige and Lynn Crandall