José-Alain Sahel Receives 2024 Wolf Prize in Medicine

July 9, 2024

José-Alain Sahel, MD, Distinguished Professor and Eye and Ear Foundation Professor and Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of the UPMC Vision Institute, received the prestigious Wolf Prize in Medicine together with his colleague Botond Roska, MD, PhD, of the Institute for Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology Basel, for their work to restore sight using optogenetics, a research tool that uses light to control cell activity.

Cells in the retina convert light into electrical signals, which travel through the optic nerve to the brain. When these cells are damaged, vision loss can occur. Optogenetics uses gene therapy to reprogram retina cells, making them sensitive to light. Specially engineered goggles accompany this therapy, emitting light pulses that activate the reprogrammed cells, partially restoring vision.

Sahel and Roska have collaborated in the field of optogenetics for many years. In 2021, the pair published, with collaborators at the Paris Institut de la Vision, which Sahel founded and directed, a groundbreaking study in Nature Medicine that outlined the first instance of partial vision restoration in a human patient. This is the first-ever published clinical application of optogenetics; the trial was conducted in Paris, London and Pittsburgh.

“It is deeply gratifying to see José’s life-changing work honored with the Wolf Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in science," said Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine at Pitt. “He brings a brilliant mind and genuine humility to the tireless pursuit of helping to restore vision to patients. We are very fortunate to have him on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh.”

Since 1978, the Wolf Foundation has awarded the Wolf Prize to scientists and artists to recognize outstanding achievements that contribute to the betterment of humanity. An international committee reviews nominations each year and selects the prize laureates. Sahel and Roska join a distinguished group of more than 380 scientists and artists from around the world whose work transcends societal barriers and aims to improve the human experience.  

Photo credit: UPMC