Image: Bryce Vickmark/MIT News
Image: Bryce Vickmark/MIT News

Ed Boyden SB ’99, MNG ’99 earned his reputation as one of the world’s leading brain researchers for his groundbreaking work in the field of optogenetics, a method of controlling neurons in the brain using light. Now Boyden, a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences, and head of MIT’s Synthetic Biology Group, has just received the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

STAT News caught up this month with Boyden to find out what he’s doing with his prize money. Reporter Andrew Joseph also asked Boyden’s expert opinion on how optogenetics might transition from a research tool to a therapeutic—a hot topic, just four months after the start of the first-ever human clinical trial using the technology.

The trial aims to use optogenetics as a therapy to treat Retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes blindness. Boyden can foresee other applications being developed within the next ten years. “Imagine if you could deliver a cell to the body and when you trigger it with light, it releases a hormone or a growth factor or some kind of biologic,” he says. “This could potentially be an avenue to a wide variety of ultraprecise control of bodily function.”

Back to that Breakthrough Prize: aside from making a deposit in their children’s college fund, Boyden and his wife are investing it in the scientific research of others. “Part of it we’re using to try to support research that’s too crazy to get funded by normal means,” he says, noting that many breakthroughs spring from curiosity.

Read the full interview at STAT News.

Still curious about neuroscience and optogenetics? Professor Boyden recently stopped by Reddit for an AskScience AMA (Ask Me Anything). You can find his Q&A here.

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