Dr. Peter H. Seeberger is the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Berlin, a position he has held since 2009. He earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Colorado under Distinguished Professor Marvin Caruthers. Dr. Seeberger has helped to start nine companies that employ his research, while simultaneously working philanthropically to deliver new therapies and resources for fighting neglected diseases such as malaria in underserved countries. Dr. Seeberger has been internationally recognized for his groundbreaking research on the synthesis of designer carbohydrates and glycoproteins and their therapeutic applications.
Glycoproteins, polymers of sugar and peptide, are integral to human metabolism and homeostasis, and they especially stand out as a potential avenue of pharmaceutical advancement. Notably, this area of research has led to the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins as well as vaccines like Prevnar and has also proven useful against antibiotic-resistant infections. The idea to work on the automated synthesis of carbohydrates evolved in 1993 while Dr. Seeberger was working on the 3rd floor of the Cristol Building in the Caruthers Lab as a graduate student. He had previously worked with Dr. Caruthers on the automated synthesis of oligonucleotides and modified peptides. Since nobody had accomplished the automated synthesis of carbohydrates, Dr. Seeberger thought this would be something exciting to do, and he selected his postdoctoral work accordingly:
I joined Marv’s lab after his work on DNA synthesis, but I did work with him on di-phosphorylated DNA and peptides. As a grad student with the [then Chemistry & Biochemistry Department], I was actually bench-mates with Steve Scaringe, who did most of the work on RNA synthesis and who would, along with our advisor, found the RNA-synthesizing company Dharmacon using this research.
Dr. Seeberger initially joined CU as a Fulbright Scholar and chose Biochem for its integrated approach where many different backgrounds come together on biomolecular synthesis. As a student, Dr. Seeberger was impressed with how approachable and interactive the faculty were. Even as a first-year student rotating through different labs he felt empowered to do real research in the lab and present during group meetings. Dr. Seeberger quickly realized he enjoyed cutting-edge research, and that he might be able to compete at the very top level. This was a quick reversal from his undergraduate career, where he had very little biochemistry experience that left him feeling underprepared for the rigor of graduate school, in addition to speaking English as a second language. The congenial atmosphere among his small cohort of thirteen biochemistry students made it easy to build relationships, grow his understanding of the nuances of graduate life, and identify what he found fulfilling both scientifically and personally.
A Day in the Life
Dr. Seeberger currently works on the chemistry and biology of carbohydrates; by developing automated glycan assembly, Dr. Seeberger’s team provides tools to investigate the role of glycans in all areas of biology including signaling, immunology and even structural biology. Fundamental work in this area has led to therapeutic applications including novel carbohydrate-based vaccines against hospital-acquired infections, antibodies against cancer cells, and novel diagnostics.
Describing the typical workday, Dr. Seeberger foremost describes himself as a researcher, overseeing a department of around 90 people, 25 of whom he works with directly. When he’s not breaking biosynthetic ground, he’s also the managing director of the entire institute of over 500 people and works with a number of companies that he helped start.
In my office I keep a sign I received as a gift from Har Gobind Khorana, the postdoctoral advisor of Marv Caruthers and my colleague on the faculty at MIT: Work, Finish, Publish (a quote of Michael Faraday). It reminds me that without those three it is difficult to make progress in any kind of scientific endeavor.
His favorite days are spent discussing research with his graduate students and postdocs. Along the same logic, Dr. Seeberger believes that if students are doing cutting-edge research, then the biotechnology field will support them and the commercial uses will become apparent. Sometimes this is obvious as in the case of vaccines. Other times, it’s a matter of speaking with medical and industry professionals who know which tools could enhance their work.
After doing his own consultation with health officials, Dr. Seeberger has been working on developing a malaria drug for underserved countries through a company in Kentucky called ArtemiFlow—"we’re using former tobacco fields to grow sweet wormwood, which contains a compound called artemisinin that’s used in the synthesis of anti-malaria & anti-cancer drugs.” Dr. Seeberger’s work, in his words, plays "just a small part" in enabling others to do better biology and better medicine.
Asked where the field is heading, Dr. Seeberger thinks the glycosciences were dormant for several decades as the tools have simply been missing. Most biochemists have so far focused on DNA, RNA and proteins as we have the tools to manipulate those at will. By providing such tools to the glycosciences, Dr. Seeberger describes a surge of interest where the faculties of top institutions in the US and globally have added glycoscientists to their ranks. According to Dr. Seeberger, this is an area that will hold many opportunities for students in the years to come. But aside from his home turf of glycosynthesis, Dr. Seeberger thinks there are many other areas worth exploring, including utilizing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 to solve fundamental and applied problems.
For aspiring biochemists to best position themselves as attractive graduate candidates, Dr. Seeberger believes students should be good at what they do and enjoy it, “otherwise it is just a pain. One needs to be really good in one area and have very deep expertise.” In addition, he thinks students should be able to understand neighboring fields and communicate effectively with scientists in these areas: “A well-rounded scientist with good social skills that can play well within a team is certainly going to have an easier time getting a position.” Dr. Seeberger thinks becoming an academic is certainly an exciting path, but not for everyone. As an alternative, work in biotech or pharma industries hold many opportunities with wildly different potential. Whatever the path, Dr. Seeberger and all biochemists work in a rapidly expanding field at the forefront of human innovation.