Assistant Professor Huiliang (Evan) Wang has received a new five-year R35 grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore and address challenges in the field of optogenetics.

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Optogenetics is a promising technology where researchers combine an optical system and genetic engineering to control and monitor biological functions of cells, tissues, or organs with high temporal and spatial resolution. Researchers use optogenetics for control of neural and muscle cell activity, cardio functions, understanding and treatment disease through genetically coded light-activated proteins.

Because this technology is able to control a subset of neurons, it has the potential to be advantageous in both the understanding and treatment of neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

One challenge in using optogenetics is that the technology is invasive, since the delivery of light into deep body areas such as the brain or heart requires optical fiber implantation, which can damage cells and tissue. Another challenge is that currently researchers use viral delivery systems to transfer DNA plasmids that are required for optogenetics into cells. This delivery system can cause immune responses, which could be a biosafety concern. To address challenges, Wang and his lab are developing nanoparticles to deliver genetic material into cells, which they believe will help avoid immune response caused by virus.

Wang has also co-developed a technology called “sono-optogenetics,” where nanoparticles are activated by focused ultrasound for light emission to achieve optogenetics noninvasively. While Wang and his colleagues have successfully applied this process using inorganic nanoparticles, these inorganic nanoparticles may have long-term safety concerns because they are not biodegradable. Wang will use the NIH funding to further investigate this process to see if nanoparticles from organic materials can also be applied in this manner as effectively. The funding will also help Wang and his lab to design efficient gene delivery nanoparticles for expression of light-activated proteins for sono-optogenetics.