Prof. Won Do Heo Named Scientist of the Month in April
Optogenetic technology enables cell control using light
Professor Won Do Heo of the Department of Biological Sciences was named the Scientist of the Month for April 2017.
Professor Heo was recognized for his method of optogenetic control over cell function using light. His biological technique identifies the causes of calcium-related diseases (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, cancer) using LED light instead of surgery or drug administration. Calcium ions are essential ions in the control of cell function, which varies according to the concentration and position of calcium ions in cells.
Professor Heo’s calcium ion channel activation technique (OptoSTIM1) uses light to activate calcium ions in the body. The experimental results showed that calcium ion influx was activated in cells influenced by calcium ions, such as normal cells, cancer cells, and human embryonic stem cells. By controlling the concentration of calcium ions using light, it is possible to control biological phenomena, including cell growth, neurotransmitter delivery, muscle contraction, and hormone control. The team is the first in the world to demonstrate a twofold increase in the memory capacity of mice by increasing calcium concentrations with light.
Professor Heo said, “Until now, channelrhodopsin was used to activate neurons in the field of optogenetics. This new optogenetic technique of calcium ion channel activation is expected to have various applications in biology and neurobiology.”
* Channelrhodopsin: An algal protein that serves as a light-gated ion channel for cations such as Na+, K+, and Ca++
The “Scientist of the Month Award” is given by the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning and the National Research Foundation of Korea to one researcher every month in recognition of outstanding contributions to the advancement of science and technology. The awardee receives prize money of ten million won.
Professor Heo is a local researcher who laid the foundation for optogenetics in the late 2000s, when the field was relatively new even outside of Korea. He launched the Bio-Imaging and Optogenetics Lab after being appointed as a professor in 2008, and has been studying optogenetics since early 2009.
For the past 20 years, Professor Heo has developed various bioimaging techniques for the visualization of complex signal delivery in cells, as well as optogenetic techniques that enable remote control over cell functions. His goal is to understand the mechanism behind the storage and processing of information in the brain, and to overcome neurological disorders such as dementia and depression using light.
According to Professor Heo, optogenetic techniques based on near-infrared light, capable of delivering light to the brain in a non-invasive manner, must be developed further to control calcium ions in the body using light. Most optogenetic studies have relied on blue light, which has low transmittance in the human body. He said, “We can get a step closer to curing neurological disorders by using heat, ultrasound, and magnetic fields in stimuli-sensing proteins, and by developing the fields of thermogenetics and magnetogenetics.”
The professor added, “The proposed technique may not have an immediate, direct impact on our lives, but I hope to see it being used in restoring memory and curing dementia in about 20 years.”
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