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Stanford University School of Medicine

Karl Deisseroth: optogenetics pioneer, Massry Prize winner and, by the way, great dad

Karl D by Linda CiceroThe Northern California Science Writers Association, a regional professional group I belong to, holds quarterly dinner meetings at which high-powered invited scientists jump up from the table as the dishes are being cleared to give 45-minute presentations about their exciting research.

Stanford bioengineer, neuroscientist and practicing psychiatrist Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, fits the bill. Among his achievements, he has pioneered the development of a technology called optogenetics, which the journal Nature Methods declared its "Method of the Year" in 2010.

Optogenetics lets investigators examine individual nerve cells or circuits in a conscious, active animal -- and perhaps, someday, it will help clinicians treat human patients. By inserting light-sensitive microbial proteins on the surfaces of nerve cells, scientists can instantly and repeatedly activate or block individual nerve cells or circuits at will with the simple flick of a light switch. They can then monitor the downstream effects to learn exactly what that nerve cell or circuit does for a living.

Deisseroth is a hard "get." An unceasingly productive scientist, he not only heads a huge, prolific laboratory but also oversees a program he set up years ago to train researchers from all over the world in the use of optogenetics. He's been profiled in the New York Times and The New Yorker. Late last year he won the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Fortunately, he's very interested in communicating about scientific research to people outside of academia. So we managed to recruit him to give a talk before a standing-room-only crowd in a sit-down restaurant on the San Francisco Peninsula. I had to save him a seat at the restaurant, as I'd got the word from his administrative assistant that he'd be showing up late because his wife, Stanford neurologist Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, was out of town, leaving four wriggly kids -- the youngest now approaching four months of age -- at home. He couldn't yank himself away to feed himself at our event until he'd fed all of them first.

Deisseroth found a way to acquaint a broad spectrum of science writers, many of whom have zero biology expertise, with the history of his pursuits. Included were tales of his early and, shall we say, "ambitious" attempts as a graduate student to build a brain in a dish from a single "starter" stem cell; and, a bit later, a slide displaying chicken scratches on a page of his lab notebook, dated 7/1/04 and documenting his then-tiny group's first successes in coaxing genetically modified mammalian nerve cells to express, on their surfaces, light-sensitive proteins derived from pond scum.

A few days before his well-received talk, I learned that Deisseroth's optogenetics work had won him yet another prestigious award: the Massry Prize, which he shares with Peter Hegemann, PhD, professor and chief of the Department for Biophysics at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and Gero Miesenboeck, MD, professor of physiology at the University of Oxford. (We announced the honor in this news release today.)

The Massry Prize, established in 1996, has been awarded every year since. No fewer than 12 of its 40 or so recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Just sayin'.

Previously: Stanford's Karl Deisseroth talks about the work he was "destined to do," Stanford bioengineer Karl Deisseroth wins 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life SciencesNew York Times profiles Stanford's Karl Deisseroth and his work in optogeneticsAn in-depth look at the career of Stanford's Karl Deisseroth, "a major name in science" and Nature Methods names optogenetics its Method of the Year
Photo by L.A. Cicero

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