The Soccer Playing Scientist
On the dusty playgrounds of his native Senegal, Cheikh Seye spent long hours honing the soccer skills that would one day serve him well on the greener fields of Bordeaux, France. Yet even as the rangy young forward worked on instep drives and one-touch passes, he never lost sight of what he regarded as his real goal -- a career in science.
"Even as a boy, I knew I would be a scientist," says Seye, now 38 and a research assistant professor of biochemistry. His mom, as one might imagine, was pleased with his career choice. "She used to tell me, 'Do whatever you would like to do, just be the best at it ... but not soccer!' " he says with a laugh. "At that time people had a different way of thinking about sport, you know? My mother thought of sport as something you do if you have free time: Your main focus should be your studies."
She needn't have worried. Seye loved school and, though still serious about soccer, happily relegated his participation to weekends. With the encouragement of his instructors, he became a top science student, enrolling at the University of Dakar in Senegal's capital city. Three years later he gained admission into the University of Bordeaux's cell biology masters program.
Seye says it was an honor to be accepted, but the program wasn't a perfect fit. As an undergraduate in Dakar, he had made up his mind to pursue cardiovascular research. Unfortunately, the Bordeaux program focused on neurobiology and endocrinology. He enrolled anyway, using his free time to try and keep current on vascular science. It wasn't easy.
"At that time, Bordeaux was classified as the most difficult master's program in France," Seye says. "We had class from 8 o'clock in the morning until 1:00 p.m., one hour for lunch, another session until 6 o'clock, and then homework was assigned. It was unbearable." Nor was the town's most famous beverage available to salve the pain: "Whenever I tell people I lived in Bordeaux they always say, 'Oh, you must know all about wine.' But I'm a Muslim; I can't drink! I've never even tasted wine!"
Still, Seye grew to love the city, and the difficult master's coursework paid off in admission to the prestigious doctoral program at the University of Paris. There, at last, he was able to begin cardiovascular research. Ironically, this soon brought him back to Bordeaux.
"There was a lab in a Bordeaux hospital that was associated with the program in Paris," Seye says. "They agreed to work with me on the PhD; I would stay in Bordeaux but still be a student in Paris." The research went well, and even left him time for his other passion: soccer. "I started to play soccer, a lot of soccer," he says with barely restrained glee.
As a soccer-playing scientist, Seye was content to play for a second-tier club; there just wasn't time to pursue a position with first-division Girondins de Bordeaux. But as a heart researcher, he was already well on his way to competing in the big leagues.
Working with noted molecular biologist Claude Desgranges, Seye began to explore how problems in the endothelium, the cellular lining that serves as a semi-permeable barrier between the blood and the arteries, might contribute to atherosclerosis. He was interested, specifically, in the role played by nucleotide receptors, molecules on the surface of the endothelium that act like switches controlling which molecules pass from the blood and into the artery wall.
Scientists suspected that malfunctioning nucleotide receptors could play a role in vascular disorders. But no one had yet identified exactly how this might occur. Seye and Desgranges hoped to find answers by exploring the genetics of a particularly promising receptor called P2Y2. "Within about six to eight months we had a clone that we thought was the gene of interest," Seye says. "So I sequenced it. About two, maybe three weeks later, I learned that it was already published by another group. That group, it turned out, was working here at Missouri." Seye mentally filed the experience away, and continued working to develop his own models for understanding P2Y2's role in inflammation and hardening of heart arteries.
A couple of years later, Seye, now working in Belgium at the University of Antwerp, decided to revisit this same Missouri group. The plan was to e-mail its leader, MU biochemistry professor Gary Weisman, and ask about the possibility of collaborating on a receptor-related project.
Weisman replied at once. He was impressed by the young scientist and, after a face-to-face meeting a few months later, Weisman offered Seye a job working with him at MU's new Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center. In 2000 Seye moved to Columbia with his wife, Marieme.
Today, as a member of Weisman's Inflammation Research Group, Seye has most recently helped to demonstrate how two nucleotides, adenosine 5'-triphosphate and uridine 5-triphosphate, are released by cells damaged during surgeries meant to clear clogged arteries. When these bind with P2Y2 receptors on the endothelium, they set in motion a chain of chemical reactions that can thicken blood vessels in the heart. Preventing that, says Seye, means designing "molecules that will selectively block production of the P2Y2 receptor."
Developing such a molecule could result in important alternative therapies in the fight against of heart disease, America's No. 1 killer. It would be a major breakthrough, sort of like winning a World Cup for human health. "It will be difficult," says Seye. "But all my efforts are concentrated toward that goal."
Published by the Office of Research.
©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.