Feng Zhang, Ph.D., a pioneer of the revolutionary CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene-editing technology, TAL effectors, and optogenics, has been awarded the 2017 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the largest cash prize for invention in the U.S. The award, established in 1994, honors Jerome H. Lemelson, an American engineer and prolific inventor who held 605 patents at the time of his death in 1997.
“It is a tremendous honor to receive the Lemelson-MIT Prize and to join the company of so many incredibly impactful inventors who have won this prize in years past,” said Zhang, in a prepared statement. “Invention has always been a part of my life—I think about new problems every day and work to solve them creatively. This prize is a testament to the passionate work of my team and the support of my family, teachers, colleagues, and counterparts around the world.”
Zhang 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. While he is best known for his lab’s work in being the first to use CRISPR technology to successfully demonstrate its use in living human cells, the award was based on his body of work including optogenetics—the technology that helps researchers better understand how cellular function in the brain affects neurologic function.
In receiving the award, the Lemelson-MIT team singled out Zhang’s commitment to encouraging further development and research through open sharing of tools and scientific collaboration. A press release announcing the award noted that “Zhang’s lab has trained thousands of researchers to use CRISPR technology and since 2013 he has shared over 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.”
The annual award is given to mid-career inventors whose inventions can significantly improve the world. There are no restrictions on how Zhang can use the money. The award is made possible via the support of The Lemelson Foundation, a funding source for invention in service of social and economic change.
“We are thrilled to honor Dr. Zhang, who we commend for his advancements in genetics, and more importantly his willingness to share his discoveries to advance the work of others around the world,” said Dorothy Lemelson, chair of The Lemelson Foundation. “Zhang’s work is inspiring a new generation of inventors to tackle the biggest problems of our time.”