Global optogenetics experts share big developments at Flinders meeting

Major recent advances in the field of optogenetics – which uses light instead of drugs to control specific cells in the body – will be shared among international experts at a major conference being hosted at Flinders University on 23-24 February.

The Third Optogenetics Australia meeting will feature leading scientists in Optogenetics and Chemogenetics from around the world discussing their new methods to control specific internal organs. They will share their expertise in understanding how to apply these techniques to a wide range of biological systems for treating human illnesses and conditions.

“We are in a renaissance era of neuroscience, thanks to the emergence of new tools and technologies during the past five years. This means that we can now address major unresolved questions to help lives, that we were only once able to dream of,” says Flinders University’s Professor Nick Spencer, who has organised the meeting with Flinders University colleague Professor Harald Janovjak and Associate Professor Wendy Imlach from Monash University.

“Rather than using conventional drugs to control the body, which almost always have non-specific side effects, scientists attending the meeting will show how they can use light to drive the same processes but with much higher precision.

Optogenetics Australia meeting organisers Professor Nick Spencer, Associate Professor Wendy Imlach and Professor Harald Janovjak.

“Scientists can now control specific cells and pathways in the body, and we can produce the required light-sensitive proteins inside the body, so the meeting will discuss new techniques, tools and applications to target particular organs in the body and improve their outcomes as a therapy.”

Each of the experts making presentations at the two-day meeting, being held at the Alere Function Centre at Flinders University’s Bedford Park campus, have different fields of optogenetic treatment expertise, and at the meeting they will share the latest applications of optogenetics to a range of specialised areas, including some that have never been previously explored, such as agriculture.

Professor Spencer says one of the meeting’s highlights will be a presentation by Professor Richard Kramer from the University of California in Berkley, USA, about new strategies for preserving and restoring sight in retinal degeneration.

“Professor Kramer is doing optogenetic experiments in human vision that can restore vision to people who are blind, and his talk comes while he is in Adelaide to observe work at the Royal Adelaide Hospital,” says Professor Spencer.

“His research is at the forefront of translational optogenetic technology.

“In a further example, with Parkinson’s disease, we know exactly where the problem is and which neurones are deficient, so you can use light to target only those neurones in only that part of the body, rather than taking a medicine, which gets absorbed into the body and can have all sorts of side-effects.”

The list of keynote presenters at the two-day meeting also includes such international luminaries in this field as Chandra Tucker (University of Colorado, USA), Akihiro Yamanaka (Nagoya University, Japan), Alexander Gottschalk (Goethe University, Germany), Gusong Hong (Stanford University, USA), Yves De Koninck (Laval University, Canada) and Ofer Yizhar (Weizmann Institute, Israel).

This meeting marks the first opportunity these experts have met in person since the outbreak of COVID-19, and much has happened rapidly in optogenetics through this period.

“The fact Flinders University is hosting this international meeting signals our strength in this field,” says Professor Spencer.

Optogenetics Australia was conceived by Professor Janovjak, an ARC Future Fellow who is the Discipline Lead of Biotechnology at Flinders University.

“This meeting is designed to unify leading researchers in Australia in the field of neurogenetic technologies. This will add more to the collective knowledge among more people about the sum of what advances in optogenetics can achieve.”

The meeting has been sponsored by the Flinders Foundation, Flinders University and the Australasian Neurogastroenterology & Motility Association (ANGMA).

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