Three scientists who helped unlock secrets of the brain, along with an evolutionary geneticist and a biologist, won the richest awards in the life sciences on Sunday night in a competition funded by dot-com billionaires.
MIT’s Edward Boyden and Stanford Professor Dr. Karl Deisseroth were each awarded $3 million Breakthrough Prizes for their development of optogenetics, a technique that lets researchers program neurons so they can be controlled by light.
The technique has given scientists unprecedented power over specific neural circuits in the brain; they can effectively flip them on or off with flashes of light, delivered by a wisp of a fiber-optic wire. It’s opened exciting new fields of research, including the exploration of possible causes of and treatments for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Boyden, a synthetic neurobiologist, has also used the technique to restore some vision in blind mice and believes it has promise for treating epilepsy, Parkinson’s and other conditions.
MIT biologist Feng Zhang was a key member of the team that created optogenetics, but he did the work as graduate student and was not honored on Sunday with a Breakthrough Prize.
Another winner, John Hardy of University College in London, plumbed a very different field of brain research: He discovered mutations that cause early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Mutations in the gene prompt the body to produce too much amyloid precursor protein, or APP, which builds up in plaques in the brain.
That discovery kicked off a race to develop drugs to block the buildup of amyloid. Most have failed in the early going, kicking off debate as to whether amyloid plaques or another protein, tau, cause the most damage in Alzheimer’s. But the awards committee of the Breakthrough Prize, which consists of former winners, didn’t have much doubt, citing Hardy for “inspiring new strategies for diseases prevention.”
In a different field entirely, Helen Hobbs won another of the $3 million prizes for discovering genetic mutations that affect levels of dangerous LDL cholesterol. Hobbs, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, found that knocking out the PCSK9 gene made cholesterol levels plunge. Two drugs that inhibit PCKS9 have already been approved by the FDA; the manufacturers have both set price tags of more than $14,000 a year.
The final award in life science went to evolutionary geneticist Svante Paabo, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. He was among the first to sequence ancient genomes, including fragments of DNA from Neanderthal fossils. The work has illuminated unexpected links between modern humans and Neanderthals.
The mathematics price went to Ian Agol of the University of California at Berkeley for his work on geometric topology, a field that explores objects that may seem flat but that, in reality, fold into multiple dimensions. The $3 million physics prize was split among hundreds of physicists around the globe who have been chasing the elusive, subatomic neutrino.
The Breakthrough Prizes were created just three years ago by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician; Google co-founder Sergey Brin; biologist Anne Wojcicki, the co-founder of genetics company 23andMe; and Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese internet giant Alibaba, and his wife, Cathy Zhang; and internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia Milner.
All told, nearly $22 million in award money was distributed on Sunday night in a glittering black-tie ceremony. The founders of the Breakthrough Prize wanted scientists to be treated like rock stars and indeed the guests walked a red carpet and posed for pictures in their black-tie dress. The ceremony was held at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., and featured cameo appearances by Hollywood actors and entertainment by Pharrell Williams.