(from Greek optikós, meaning “seen, visible”) is a biological technique which involves the use of light to control cells in living tissue, typically neurons, that have been genetically modified to express light-sensitive ion channels.
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A step into the unknown…
24 February 2016
By Nick O’Connor
Deep breaths everyone.
In today’s Exponential Investor we’re going to take a step into the unknown – and explore an emerging branch of science with vast potential (both for the world and for us as investors).
It’s called optogenetics.
Never heard of it?
Don’t worry. By the end of today’s letter you’ll not only know what it is – you’ll see why it’s causing such a stir in the scientific and medical communities and why March could be a breakout month for this hitherto unknown branch of science.
Let’s dive straight in.
Our story starts, rather strangely, with the study of algae.
The fact that algae give off light has been known for thousands of years. As Charles Darwin put in his diary while travelling aboard the HMS Beagle:
The sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle. There was a fresh breeze, and every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with a pale light… As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these vivid flames, was not so utterly obscure, as over the rest of the heavens.
That was nearly two centuries ago. Yet it’s only in the last hundred years or so that we’ve learnt how algae do this.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that we made a breakthrough that led to the birth of optogenetics.
The details of the discovery involve the kind of science that makes my brain ache, so I’ll give you the short version. Scientists found that certain algae contain proteins that respond directly to a light source. This enables them to detect and move toward light.
Put simply, we found that light itself can be the catalyst for cellular change, rather than a chemical reaction. That opened the door to the idea of using light as a kind of wireless transmitter to bring about biological change.
But it wasn’t until this idea converged with the advent of genetic therapy that the field of optogenetics was born.
See, genetic therapy allows us to transplant the gene responsible for responding to light as a stimulus in algae into other living things (first animals like mice, and more recently humans – we’ll get to that in a second).
This is all a rather long winded way of explaining what optogenetics is, which is essentially modifying genes so that they’re responsive to light. That may not sound like a big deal. But the implications are immense.
It means we can use light – or certain frequencies of it – as a catalyst for biological change in the human body.
That goes far beyond making your skin glow when you shine a light on it.
Take, for instance, your brain.
Making a change inside the human brain is complex and dangerous. For a long time it involved using electrodes to trigger cellular change. But that wasn’t precise enough for many procedures. According to a special report on optogenetics by Nature Methods:
In 1979 Francis Crick suggested that the major challenge facing neuroscience was the need to control one type of cell in the brain while leaving others unaltered. As electrodes cannot be used to precisely target defined cells and drugs act much too slowly, Crick later speculated that light might have the properties to serve as a control tool, but at the time neuroscientists knew of no clear strategy to make specific cells responsive to light.
Optogenetics is the solution to that problem.
It means we can make very precise changes to cells within the brain by using light as a catalyst. For example, in one experiment at Stanford University, researchers found that they could switch off the sensation of fear in mice by shooting light through a fiber optic cable at specific cells in their brains.
Put aside whether it’s useful to switch fear off, for a second, and just think about that as a scientific achievement. It means we can manipulate complex cellular actions wirelessly, using light as the sole trigger.
Which, as you can imagine, has made optogenetics one of the hottest emerging technologies of the last decade. For a graphic illustration of that, take a look at the explosion of uses of the term in scientific literature below:
Source: Optogenetics by Keith Deisseroth, Nature Methods
There are myriad ways in which the field of optogenetics is developing. I’ll return to the subject again in the future and look at some of them. But before I leave you, I wanted to highlight one particular optogenetic study likely to make headlines in the next month or so.
Teaching the blind to see
You see, one particular use of optogenetics could be to restore the sight of blind people.
In fact, the very first human test of optogenetics involves a team of researchers in Texas transplanting the DNA of light sensitive algae into legally blind patients. The idea is to use the light entering the eye naturally to trigger a response within nerve cells and send electronic signals to the brain. MIT Technology Review has the story:
The study, sponsored by a startup called RetroSense Therapeutics, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is expected to be the first human test of optogenetics, a technology developed in neuroscience labs that uses a combination of gene therapy and light to precisely control nerve cells.
The trial, to be carried out by doctors at the Retina Foundation of the Southwest, will involve as many as 15 patients with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease in which the specialized light-sensitive photoreceptor cells in the eye die, slowly causing blindness. The aim of the treatment is to engineer the DNA of different cells in the retina, called ganglion cells, so that they can respond to light instead, firing off signals to the brain.
According to reports, that trial should get under way very soon. The results are expected to be “a gold mine” for future studies, according to neuroscientist Antonello Bonci.
I’ll keep an eye out for the results. But in the meantime, keep a lookout for any other optogenetic breakthroughs. This is an emerging new discipline with vast potential. There are likely to be some major opportunities – and ultimately a lot of money – to be made as it matures.
Just remember – you heard it here first!
All the best,
Publisher, Exponential Investor
P.S. We haven’t talked much about genetics and biotechnology much yet in Exponential Investor. But we’ll be ramping up our coverage a lot in the coming weeks and months – there’s a huge amount of potential here. If there’s any particular topic you think is worth us looking at, just get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exponential Investor is published by MoneyWeek Research Limited.
MoneyWeek Research Ltd
This is the Stanford University USA research paper synopsis.
24 February 2016