Professor Charles M. Deber, a Senior Scientist in the Research Institute at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, and Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto, is the co-recipient of the 2017 R. Bruce Merrifield Award of the American Peptide Society. His laboratory is in the top echelon of worldwide structural biology research in peptide-based approaches to elucidation of fundamental peptide- and protein-membrane interactions.
Charles Deber was introduced to peptide chemistry early in his career through his undergraduate research with Murray Goodman at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. Deber earned his Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry with Arthur Cope at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and carried out postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School with Elkan Blout. At Harvard, Deber was involved in some of the earliest applications of NMR spectroscopy to the investigation of peptide conformations, was the first to observe the presence of cis peptide bonds in proline-containing peptides, and pioneered the use of cyclic peptides as rigidifying systems to diagnose residue-dependent structural features. Deber completed his training with Henry Lardy at the Enzyme Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, working on ionophore-mediated calcium transport.
As an independent investigator in Toronto, Deber became interested in fundamental and applied problems at the interface between peptide/protein chemistry and lipid/membrane biochemistry — important topics because human diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, cancer, and diabetes have been linked to critical mutations in membrane proteins. Deber developed fundamental guidelines for membrane protein engineering and identified a 'threshold hydrophobicity' concept to explain spontaneous insertion of peptides into membranes.
Among the many contributions of the Deber laboratory was a novel 'Lys-tagging' procedure that overcame, for the first time, the inherent aqueous insolubility of trans-membrane polypeptide segments, thereby enabling facile solid-phase synthesis, purification, and characterization of highly hydrophobic peptides. Deber then used membrane-spanning peptides derived from the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator, CFTR — the CF gene product — to work out a molecular level basis for some forms of cystic fibrosis. In other work, Deber de novo designed cationic antimicrobial peptides, CAPs, whose properties led to the elucidation of some factors that allow certain CAPs to select for bacterial membranes over, host, mammalian membranes. As well, the Deber lab solved a 30-year 'mystery' as to why membrane proteins migrate aberrantly on SDS-PAGE gels by discovering that SDS binds to peptide sequences differentially as a function of sequence hydrophobicity, PNAS, 2009.
Deber's career-long research is described in nearly 300 scientific papers and was performed by over 100 post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and project students who were supervised and mentored by Dr. Deber. For these accomplishments, the American Peptide Society has honored Deber with the 2000 Vincent du Vigneaud Award and the 2009 Murray Goodman Award. Among other recognitions, Deber was elected in 2001 as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, FRSC, and was elected in 2009 to the Board of Trustees of the Gordon Research Conferences. With the American Peptide Society, Deber served as its first elected President, 1991-1993, and was the Editor-in-Chief of the official APS journal Peptide Science, 1998-2004. He was the co-organizer, with Ken Kopple, of the 9th American Peptide Symposium, Toronto, 1985, and co-chair, with John Smith, of the 'Chemistry & Biology of Peptides' GRC, Ventura, 1996. He served two elected terms on the APS Council, 1997 — 2003 and 2009 — 2015. Professor Deber is also an outstanding teacher at the University of Toronto, receiving the W.T. Aikins Award as the top lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine for his "Protein Structure and Function" course, and is part of the team entrusted with teaching classes of 1,200 students "Introductory Biochemistry" — the largest science course in the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto. To-date, Deber has taught over 18,000 undergraduates in this role.