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UC Berkeley chemist, biologist, entrepreneur awarded $500,000 Lemelson–MIT Prize

Chemical biologist Carolyn Bertozzi will receive this year's $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, which honors inventors and entrepreneurs. Bertozzi, a professor of chemistry, has developed innovative chemical reactions that can be performed on biological molecules, living cells and even in live animals without harming them.

Chemical biologist Carolyn Bertozzi of the University of California, Berkeley, will receive this year’s $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, which honors inventors and entrepreneurs, according to an announcement today (Wednesday, June 2) by the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Carolyn Bertozzi

Carolyn Bertozzi

Carolyn Bertozzi

Named after the prolific inventor Jerome Lemelson, the annual prize honors an “outstanding mid-career inventor who is dedicated to improving our world through technological invention and innovation,” according to the Lemelson-MIT Program’s announcement.

Bertozzi, the T.Z. and Irmgard Chu Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, as well as investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a senior faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), has developed innovative chemical reactions that can be performed on biological molecules, living cells and even in live animals without harming them. These reactions use non-toxic chemicals and have had application worldwide in the biopharmaceutical industry in efforts to diagnose and treat diseases such as cancer, arthritis and tuberculosis.

“I am profoundly humbled by this exciting news,” Bertozzi said. “This award will have a major positive impact on my ability to pursue entrepreneurial interests and has further stoked my motivation to translate what I invent in the laboratory into products that advance human health.”

Bertozzi, 43, received her B.S. in chemistry from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Berkeley in 1993, then in 1996, after completing postdoctoral work in immunology, returned to join the Department of Chemistry faculty. Her main interest has been to develop new chemical reactions that can be employed in biological systems, and some day in human patients, to probe the molecules that contribute to health and disease. One area of biology that she studies in her own lab is the role played by complex sugar molecules, called glycans, on the surfaces of cells. These sugar molecules are involved in normal biological processes, including communication between cells, but are also targeted by disease organisms, such as the influenza virus.

“The overarching goal of my research is to develop tools from chemistry that can be applied to the creation of new medicines and diagnostic tests for early detection of disease,” she said.

One technique Bertozzi invented to monitor these cell-surface glycans is to feed cells an artificial sugar that looks so much like the real thing that cells are tricked into incorporating the sugar into their glycan chains. Once the sugar becomes part of the forest of glycans adorning a living cell, she then uses the non-toxic chemical reactions developed in her lab to attach small organic labels to it. These sugars can be modified with useful molecules, such as probes that assist in the identification of cancerous cells. The technique also allows researchers to specifically target cells for gene delivery and anti-tumor diagnostics.

Bertozzi utilizes these reactions in her work to image glycans on tumor cells, a technology that has the potential to facilitate early cancer detection.

She also invented and patented a way to precisely modify proteins using a process called the “genetically-encoded aldehyde tag” technology. In 2008, she and former graduate student David Rabuka, Ph.D., co-founded Redwood Bioscience to use this technology to develop novel protein drugs with properties that conventional molecular biology approaches cannot achieve.

Bertozzi also holds patents for a cell nanoinjector, an instrument that introduces molecules into living cells via a “nanoneedle;” artificial bone materials; targets for tuberculosis therapy; and cell microarray platforms. She and her group have a program in biomaterials centered at LBNL, where she directs the Molecular Foundry, a DOE-supported Nanoscale Science Research Center.

Bertozzi has “transformed the field of chemical biology, creating new industries along the way, and bringing new innovations to fields as disparate as nanoscience, tuberculosis therapy, and bone tissue engineering,” said Miquel Salmeron, director of LBNL’s Materials Science Division. “She also has an outstanding record of teaching, mentorship, and service to the community.”

She also pushed creation of UC Berkeley’s Chemical Biology Graduate Program in the College of Chemistry. Her research accomplishments have been aided by more than 130 coworkers, including undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

“Carolyn Bertozzi takes scientific development to a new level; beyond her extraordinary gift as a researcher and innovator, she collaborates with her students to push into new frontiers,” said Michael J. Cima, faculty director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “As a mentor, she engages those around her to develop new, creative ideas, ensuring a future pipeline of scientists, inventors and policy makers.”

A former MacArthur “genius” award winner, Bertozzi also is a faculty affiliate of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at UC Berkeley and a professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology at UC San Francisco. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A popular teacher of organic chemistry, Bertozzi won the campus’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2001. Among her other awards are the American Chemical Society (ACS) Award in Pure Chemistry and the ACS Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award; a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering; the Li Ka Shing Women in Science Award; and the Irving Sigal Young Investigator Award of the Protein Society.

She will accept the Lemelson-MIT Prize and present her accomplishments to the public at MIT during the Lemelson-MIT Program’s fourth annual EurekaFest, a multi-day celebration of the inventive spirit to be held June 16-19.

Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, founded the Lemelson-MIT Program in 1994 to recognize “the outstanding inventors and innovators transforming our world, and (to) inspire young people to pursue creative lives and careers through innovation.” It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation and administered by MIT’s School of Engineering.

For more information, see the Lemelson-MIT Program website. A fact sheet describes Bertozzi’s inventions in greater detail.