People, not projects. It’s the mantra driving everything the Howard Hughes Medical Institute invests in, and recently, we saw another example of the dividends this sort of approach can yield. Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, of Stanford, made serious waves in 2005 when he developed a nearly fail-proof method for switching on neurons with pulses of light, a field he dubbed optogenetics. The technology is a game-changer in the world of medical research, with applications in heart cells, stem cells, and others, but there was a problem: Though pulses of light could turn on neurons, they couldn’t switch them off. After Deisseroth’s big discovery in 2005, he spent nine years banging his head against a wall, trying to find a way to switch the buggers off.
Deisseroth’s brilliance and doggedness attracted the attention of HHMI in 2009. In short order, HHMI gave him a vote of confidence by naming him one of their Investigators, meaning he would receive full salary, benefits, and a research budget for five years running. That kind of stability can be really hard to come by in the world of medical research—one of the reasons HHMI has been so successful at attracting Nobel laureates and prominent scientists from around the world. That's one of the reasons its investigators go on to do such amazing things.
HHMI’s approach is daring, and the risk of failure is omnipresent. But look at this: When the long odds pay off, it means a scientist like Deisseroth nails Part B of a groundbreaking discovery nearly a decade in the making. On April 25, 2014, Stanford and HHMI announced that he'd found the key to switching off neurons—reengineering the light-sensitive proteins in order to accomplish the feat. Bravo!
While this sort of chancy research support isn’t for every foundation, it sure seems to be working swimmingly for HHMI, and we doubt it’ll change anytime soon.