Sponsored by National Starch LLC
Although Peter H. Seeberger has always had a weakness for “all sweets,” his start as a carbohydrate chemist was inspired during graduate school, when he observed that automated protein and nucleic acid production was possible, but simple methods to build volumes of oligosaccharides through chemical synthesis remained elusive. Since oligosaccharides are of enormous biological relevance—sugars mediate everything from infection to fertilization—Seeberger decided to develop practical techniques for building sugars in his independent research career. He is now renowned for several strategies to construct complex sugars, including the first automated oligosaccharide synthesizer.
“Seeberger’s work goes far beyond synthesis,” notes George Whitesides, a chemist at Harvard University. “He is remarkable for the vertical integration of his program—from methods in organic synthesis to applications of oligosaccharides to the prevention of diseases of the developing world—and for the technical ambition of his program and the personal modesty of his approach.”
As Seeberger continues to develop new methods for building complex sugars, his group also investigates the role of carbohydrates in a variety of biological processes, including inflammation, the response of the immune system to infection, and cancer metastasis.
After studying chemistry in his hometown of Nuremberg, Germany, Seeberger moved to the University of Colorado to pursue a Ph.D. under Marvin Caruthers, who spearheaded the development of automated DNA synthesis. Next he moved to New York City to pursue a postdoctorate position with Samuel Danishefsky at Columbia University.
Then in 1998, Seeberger relocated to Boston, where he achieved tenure at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also founded a spin-off company called Ancora Pharmaceuticals. That company is developing carbohydrate-based vaccines. Seeberger was then recruited to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, where he has been a professor of organic chemistry since 2003.
Last month, Seeberger moved his research group to Berlin, where he will be director of the biomolecular systems department at Max Planck Institute for Colloids & Interfaces in Potsdam and a professor at the Free University of Berlin.
At 42, Seeberger has published nearly 200 peer-reviewed articles and acquired more than a dozen patents.
“Peter is one of the most creative people I know,” Danishefsky says. “His taste in problem selection and science is always on the mark. His vision in identifying extremely important but still, perhaps, doable problems is remarkable. His lab is surely a world resource in the interfacing of chemistry, glycobiology, and even medicine.”
In addition to his research on malaria treatments and vaccines, Seeberger is also a founding member of Tesfa-IIg, a non-profit organization that aims to prevent malaria through basic, practical solutions. For example, Tesfa-IIg is helping to establish a mosquito net factory in Ethiopia, which would create jobs and provide a locally produced and less expensive barrier to malaria infection than more expensive imported nets.
Seeberger will present the award address before the Division of Carbohydrate Chemistry.