Harvey Prize in Human Health for Peter Hegemann

11 June 2017

The 2016 Harvey Prize in the field of Human Health was awarded to Prof. Peter Hegemann and Prof. Karl Diesseroth on 11 June 2017 at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel.

Karl Deisseroth, Peretz Lavie, and Peter Hegemann © Technion, Nitzan Zohar

The award recognizes their discovery of opsin molecules, which are involved in sensing light in microorganisms, and their pioneering work in utilizing these opsins to develop "optogenetics".

Peter Hegemann, professor in UniCat Research Field E4 and chief of biophysics at the Humboldt University of Berlin, shared the $75,000 prize with Karl Deisseroth from Stanford University.

Their innovative approach has revolutionized neurobiology, enabling to study neuron functionality in live animals and the relationship between neural circuits and behavior.

Optogenetics entails the installation of light-sensitive proteins, derived from microbial organisms, into specific cells in a living, freely moving mammal. These cells can be either excited or inhibited by laser light, which is delivered via an implanted optical fiber.

Peretz Lavie and Peter Hegemann © Technion, Nitzan Zohar

The ability to turn on or turn off electrical activity in a set of cells in the brain allows researchers to gain insights into the causal mechanisms behind the organ’s normal workings, as well as defects in function that accompany brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, depression and schizophrenia. Optogenetics has also been used to turn on and off electrical activity in heart and kidney cells and in other tissues.

The Harvey Prize is an Israeli scientific distinction awarded annually for breakthroughs in science and technology, as well as contributions to Peace in the Middle East, by Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. It was named after an industrialist and inventor Leo Harvey. Two awards of $75,000 each are made each year.