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HHMI Investigator wins 4 million euros Fresenius Research Prize

Tuesday, May 30, 2017  
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Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, who holds the D.H. Chen Professorship and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator has won the 2017 Fresenius Research Prize for his pioneering work in two distinct biomedical technologies — optogenetics and hydrogel-tissue chemistry — and for exploring his clinical specialty, depression, at the level of its underlying neural circuitry.

Deisseroth, a Stanford University professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry, accepted the award at a ceremony in Berlin.

The Fresenius Prize is presented every four years to a single scientist by the Else Kroner-Fresenius Foundation in Germany. The prize — the world’s most valuable for scientific achievement — comes with a cash award of 4 million euros ($4.47 million): 3.5 million euros for Deisseroth’s laboratory, and 500,000 euros for his personal use.
Deisseroth is only the second scientist to receive the prize, which was launched in 2013 and recognizes achievement in medical research. The 2013 recipient was Yale University immunologist Ruslan Medzhitov, PhD.

“We are proud that Karl has been recognized for his groundbreaking discoveries,” said Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD. “Application of his pioneering technologies by scientists worldwide is accelerating understanding and development of therapies for debilitating neurological and psychological diseases, and Karl’s own research has provided deep insight into circuit mechanisms of depression. Karl’s work exemplifies how brilliant scientific research can improve lives and improve our world.”

Hydrogel-tissue chemistry, developed in Deisseroth’s lab between 2009 and 2016, renders intact tissue samples — and even entire organs of small animals — both transparent to light and permeable to bulky molecular probes. It involves replacing the tissue’s fatty substances, which impede transparency, with a hydrogel matrix that not only permits the transmission of light but also permits the transit of large molecules, such as labeled antibodies or oligonucleotides, which can pinpoint the presence of particular proteins or DNA sequences on or in the tissue’s constituent cells.

With the help of the sophisticated methodologies developed in his lab, Deisseroth has co-authored many papers on the underpinnings of depression. He and his team have teased apart the separate neural circuits implicated in different aspects of this multifactorial disorder, such as anhedonia (the failure to experience pleasure) versus hopelessness (the inability to rise to a challenge).

Deisseroth’s lab is now taking advantage of high-powered data-collection, data-storage and data-analysis methods that have only recently become available. “We’re starting to do whole-brain analysis, collecting information from every cell in the brain and getting insights from not leaving anything out,” he said.

It’s rare for a researcher to achieve even one breakthrough technology. The development of two such game-changers, as in Deisseroth’s case, is widely considered remarkable. Still, he said, “Our primary goal isn’t to develop new methods for their own sake, but to design techniques that help us answer the questions we want to answer. We’re just biologists.”

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