The prestigious $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize honors outstanding mid-career inventors dedicated to improving the world through technological invention and innovation.
The Lemelson-MIT Program has awarded Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Carolyn Bertozzi its prestigious $500,000 Prize, which honors outstanding mid-career inventors dedicated to improving the world through technological invention and innovation.
Bertozzi, a professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, is being recognized for pioneering inventions in the field of biotechnology. She will accept the prize and speak about her work on June 18, during the Lemelson-MIT Program’s fourth annual EurekaFest on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1994, Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the most prolific inventors in U.S. history, and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program. Bertozzi is the first woman to receive the prize. The program recognizes the outstanding inventors and innovators transforming our world, and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through innovation.
Sugar molecules on the surface of every cell in the body help mediate cells’ communication with one another, allowing cells to sense and respond to their surroundings. Bertozzi is profiling how changes in these sugar molecules, called glycans, correlate with cancer, inflammation, and bacterial infections, and is exploring ways of manipulating the glycans on cells’ surfaces as a means of controlling cells' social interactions. She uses the tools of chemistry to answer biological questions related to human health and disease, and prides herself on choosing projects that many other chemists would consider too risky. Her multi-disciplinary approach has significantly advanced researchers’ ability to engineer living cells.
Much of the work in Bertozzi’s lab is directed toward developing new chemical and nanoscale tools that allow researchers to probe biological processes, particularly those involving glycans. Research at the interface of disciplines demands new tools, she says, and her ability to identify unmet needs and craft innovative solutions has consistently led to scientific advances with a broad range of applications.
Bertozzi invented the world’s first bioorthogonal chemical reaction, a technique that adds a marker molecule to sugars, proteins, and other cellular molecules. The approach, which can be used in living animals, uses laboratory-developed reagents that do not react with the normal molecules in the body and thus do not interfere with the sugars' ability to carry out their signaling functions. Bertozzi and her colleagues have used the reaction to attach tracers to sugar molecules on cell surfaces in mice. Work in her lab suggests that this technique could potentially be used to attach tracers to diseased cells, allowing doctors to pinpoint their location in the body and perhaps even target therapy.
In addition to the diagnosis and treatment of disease, the techniques developed by Bertozzi also are being used in her laboratory to construct biocompatible materials, such as artificial bone and cartilage, with applications in medicine and in materials science. A nanotube-based nanoinjector developed in her lab can be used to inject imaging agents or other molecules across the delicate cell membrane into living cells.
An avid collaborator with scientists from a broad range of disciplines, Bertozzi also directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Molecular Foundry, which provides users with access to state-of-the-art instrumentation, scientific expertise and specialized techniques to address nanoscience challenges. Last year she co-founded with David Rabuka the biotechnology company Redwood Bioscience, which uses technology developed in her lab to make specific chemical changes to existing drugs to improve their potency and reduce toxicity.