Cash award is largest in U.S. for invention

Dr. Feng Zhang, a pioneer in gene editing technology, is the recipient of this year’s $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.

The award is the largest cash prize for invention in the United States.

Zhang’s numerous scientific discoveries and inventions, as well as his commitment to mentorship and collaboration, earned him the prize that honors outstanding mid-career inventors who improve the world through technological invention and demonstrate a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). He is a core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, James and Patricia Poitras Professor in Neuroscience at MIT, and associate professor in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering at MIT.

The 36-year-old Zhang and his team were first to develop and demonstrate successful methods for using an engineered CRISPR-Cas9 system to edit genomes in living mouse and human cells. They have turned CRISPR technology into a practical and shareable collection of tools for robust gene editing and epigenomic manipulation. CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, has been harnessed by Zhang and his team as a groundbreaking gene-editing tool that is simple and versatile to use.

He encourages further development and research through open sharing of tools and scientific collaboration. Zhang believes that wide use of CRISPR-based tools will further our understanding of biology, allowing scientists to identify genetic differences that contribute to diseases and, eventually, provide the basis for new therapeutic techniques.

Zhang’s lab has trained thousands of researchers to use CRISPR technology. Since 2013, he has shared more than 40,000 plasmid samples with labs around the world both directly and through the nonprofit Addgene, enabling wide use of his CRISPR tools in their research.

He began working in a gene therapy laboratory at age 16. Zhang has played key roles in the development of multiple technologies.

Before harnessing CRISPR-Cas9, Zhang engineered microbial TAL effectors (TALEs) for use in mammalian cells, working with colleagues at Harvard, authoring multiple publications on the subject and becoming a co-inventor on several patents on TALE-based technologies. Zhang was also a key member of the team at Stanford that harnessed microbial opsins for developing optogenetics, which uses light signals and light-sensitive proteins to monitor and control activity in brain cells. This technology can help scientists understand how brain cells affect mental and neurological illnesses. Zhang co-authored multiple publications on optogenetics and is a co-inventor on several patents related to this technology.

“Feng’s creativity and dedication to problem solving impressed us,” said Stephanie Couch, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “Beyond the breadth of his own accomplishments, Feng and his lab have also helped thousands of scientists across the world access the new technology to advance their own scientific discoveries.”


Photo credit: Justin Knight