Sharing experimental data in optogenetics to develop new neurological therapies

More than forty-five laboratories using optogenetics, a technique combining optics and genetics, have joined forces to create a shared database. Several scientists, including Michael Schmid at Unifr, are sharing their successes and failures with a single objective, that of improving the treatment of diseases of the brain.

Neurological diseases such as epilepsy, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's are often caused by over- or underactive neurons. Optogenetics is a promising avenue of treatment for targeting these neurons. It is a form of gene therapy which employs commonly used viruses to introduce new genes into specific target cells, making them sensitive to light. These cells can then be activated using a laser or LED light. Similarly, by introducing these genes into the brains of patients suffering from neurological diseases, the researchers hope to be able to activate or deactivate specific neurons, thus enabling better control of these diseases than with traditional methods. "We are conducting various studies with the aim of improving visual performance in patients with impaired vision," explains Michael Schmid, researcher at the University of Fribourg, "but before tests on humans can go ahead, our methods have to be tested on laboratory animals, in this case, macaques. We have to be sure that the treatment works well and without negative side effects".

A database of the effectiveness of optogenetic methods
Optogenetics has been used for some time and with great success in rodents, but it is proving more difficult to apply to more complex animals such as monkeys and humans. Numerous trials fail and are never published. "Since scientific journals often only publish successful trials, researchers risk unknowingly repeating experiments that have already failed in other laboratories," says Schmid regretfully. To resolve this problem, researchers from more than 45 laboratories around the world have joined forces to create a new database: "It stores their successes in targeting specific regions of the brain, their advice on types of virus and other methodological matters, but also their failures, which will prevent others from making the same mistakes. I am convinced that this international database will also help to lower the already very limited number of animals used in the research and that it marks an important step in the search for clinical applications of optogenetics," Schmid concludes.

The database went public on 19 October with its publication in the scientific journal Neuron. The researchers hope to convince even more laboratories to join in their international initiative to advance optogenetic methods in the treatment of the brain.