The two winners were awarded a €60,000 prize for their work to treat degenerative retinal disease.
The Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology Basel (IOB), based in Switzerland, announced Botond Roska, PhD, and José-Alain Sahel, MD, were awarded the International Prize for Translational Neuroscience. The €60,000 prize was awarded in Hamburg, Germany, by the Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation, managed by the Max Planck Society.1 In a news release, the IOB detailed the optogenetics research which earned Dr Roska and Dr Sahel the prize, and included statements from both Dr Roska and Dr Sahel.
The annual prize is given to biomedical scientists and clinicians “who make exceptional contributions toward the understanding of neurobiology and neurological diseases.”1 Dr Roska, who is director of the IOB, also serves as a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and professor at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Basel. Dr Sahel is the Distinguished Professor of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, director of the UPMC Vision Institute and the chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of IOB.
In what the IOB called “an unprecedented feat,” the researchers successfully conducted an early-stage clinical trial with patients blinded by retinitis pigmentosa (RP).1 The team first demonstrated the optogenetic methods on lab mice, successfully resensitising the animals’ photoreceptor circuits. Then, in conjunction with co-authors from the Paris Vision Institute, Roska and Sahel moved on to clinical trials in 2021. COVID pandemic disruptions did limit the results of the study. However, the news release said, one patient successfully completed the study protocol, and demonstrated behavioural indicators of partially-restored vision.1
Roska said he hopes the optogenetic methods, which use genes derived from algae, will represent a sustainable, accessible treatment for millions of people affected by RP and other blinding conditions. He also said that new, additional data from the trial indicates some patients may achieve even more significant results from the treatment. “This was the first proof-of-concept for optogenetics in any human disease,” Roska said.1 “It is with great appreciation that we receive this positive recognition from the neuroscience community.”
Dr Sahel called the award a “happy surprise” in the same statement.1 “Optogenetics has a huge future in ophthalmology, and our long-term goal is to make it even better for patients,” Dr Sahel said. The IOB statement reiterated both researchers' dedication to ophthalmic research, and hope that gene therapy will be recognised as an effective, safe treatment for vision impairment.