First ‘Institute Professor’ of The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute inventing new ways to target incurable diseases via RNA
Matthew D. Disney, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry at The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology, has been named the first “Institute Professor” at the institution.
Endowed institute professorships are among the highest honors that the University of Florida can bestow upon a faculty member, recognizing proven leaders whose work embodies a commitment to excellence in research and scholarship.
“Over the course of his research career, Matt Disney has made significant, extensive contributions to science,” said David R. Nelson, M.D., the senior vice president for health affairs at the University of Florida and president of UF Health. “He is an outstanding member of the institute’s leadership team. His tireless efforts and commitment to mentoring and building the institute are critical to our success. For these reasons and many more, he is highly deserving of being named the first Institute Professor of The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute.”
Disney and his team invented a search-and-destroy system for multiple incurable diseases. Their system works by targeting RNA, the cousin to DNA. Because RNA is involved in transcribing genes, building proteins inside cells, and managing quality control for gene transcription, Disney reasoned that targeting RNA could offer a way around challenges that more traditional approaches have posed.
To succeed, he had to invent a way to find disease targets in RNA, design and built a database of compounds likely to bind with those targets, and then invent molecular tools able to splice out disease-causing segments. Disney has done all of this. His innovations target many difficult-to-treat diseases, including aggressive breast cancers, ALS, dementia, adult-onset muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s, some viral diseases such as COVID-19, heart disease and more.
“Matt Disney is one of the most dedicated scientists I know, and his work has propelled RNA therapeutics into a field that’s now at the forefront of global efforts to address ‘undruggable’ diseases in new ways,” said Patrick Griffin, Ph.D., scientific director of The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute. “He’s also a great colleague and friend. His leadership was instrumental in the successful transition from our founding by Scripps Research into our new chapter as a member of the University of Florida’s academic health center, UF Health.”
Disney said he felt grateful for the recognition, noting the idea of trying to make drugs that target RNA was once viewed as impossible.
“I have been blessed with an excellent research environment at this institution, where curiosity-driven, convention-defying research is encouraged,” Disney said. “This environment, created by our fabulous faculty colleagues, staff and the members of the laboratory have made our progress possible. This recognition is theirs as well, and will empower further research as we work to move our ideas forward to positively impact human health.”