Chemist Who Explores Cells’ Protein Interactions with Light to Join UF Scripps

Ciaran Seath, Ph.D.
Ciaran Seath, Ph.D. studies protein interactions in cells, using light to better understand disease and the effects of medications. He is joining the UF Scripps Chemistry Department.

Promising new drugs sometimes fail when they reach clinical trials despite strong early data. A new scientist joining UF Scripps Biomedical Research aims to address this problem with new chemistry tools that map interactions within cells.

Scientists need better mapping tools to illuminate basic biology and answer fundamental questions about how communication within cells occurs, interaction by interaction, says Ciaran Seath, Ph.D. He uses specific wavelengths of visible light to map protein interactions in the cell and thus create a better understanding of how drugs or disease affect them.

Seath will start his lab at UF Scripps in July, following a postdoctoral research position at Princeton University with recent Nobel laureate Dave MacMillan, Ph.D.

Chemistry tools like photochemistry offer new ways to help researchers see the impacts of potential drugs, helping prevent costly clinical trial failures, Seath says. The ultimate goal is better results for patients, he says. 

“You see these drugs failing, and it may be because they are binding with the wrong protein,” Seath says.

During Seath’s time with the MacMillan group, the lab made major advances in a chemistry specialty called photoredox catalysis, which uses visible light to manipulate molecules. Seath’s contributions included developing a new method for using blue light to influence the energy of intermediate molecules.

“It is essentially what allows us to take snapshots of all these molecular interaction networks,” Seath says.

Seath’s interest in mapping cells’ interaction networks arose from his studies of the factors that dictate how DNA is transcribed into proteins.

“My theory is if we can find out what these proteins are interacting with, who they are talking to, we can understand what leads to disease and maybe we can disrupt them or promote positive connections,” Seath says.

UF Scripps is the ideal place to do research like this, he adds. UF Scripps possesses technologies and expertise that are, in many ways, unique in academia. They include a robotic screening system that conducts hundreds of thousands of experiments a day, and vast collections of biologically active molecules that make it possible to probe and study the mysteries within cells in new ways. They also include chemists who are pushing the boundaries of what’s known about RNA, which assembles proteins from DNA.

The potential for high-impact collaborations is exciting, he adds. He has already begun working on a project with Matthew D. Disney, Ph.D., chair of the UF Scripps chemistry department and a pioneer in the development of medications that act directly on RNA.

“Sometimes when you develop a tool, you don’t realize how powerful it could be for other people’s research. When we can play off each other, we can accomplish more,” Seath says.

Disney predicts Seath’s work will benefit many research programs at UF Scripps.

“We’re very excited that Ciaran Seath is joining us. His approach can positively impact all of the research groups on our campus. These are exactly the type of world-changing minds that belong on our campus.” 

Patrick Griffin, Ph.D., scientific director of UF Scripps, praised Seath’s innovative ideas about exploring the interactions within cells.

“Ciaran brings new approaches to chemical biology and chemical proteomics to the UF Scripps campus that complement and expand our research capabilities. I look forward to collaborating with him and watching his independent research program lift off,” Griffin says.