Carolyn Bertozzi, repeat biotech founder and launcher of a field, shares in chemistry Nobel win
Carolyn Bertozzi, predicted by some to become a Nobel laureate, clinched one of the world’s top awards in the wee hours of Wednesday, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside a repeat winner and a Copenhagen researcher.
The Stanford professor, Morten Meldal of University of Copenhagen and 2001 awardee K. Barry Sharpless of Scripps shared the prize equally. The Nobel is sometimes split in quarters and/or halves.
“I am absolutely stunned. I am sitting here and can hardly breathe,” Bertozzi said to the committee in the middle of the night California time. “I’m still not entirely positive that it’s real, but it’s getting real by the minute.”
The in-the-moment reaction was reflected similarly in her internal communication with her lab group. The subject line: “I can’t believe it’s real.” The body of the note: “Apparently it is!”
Sharpless and Meldal won for their contributions to so-called click chemistry. Bertozzi elevated the findings by finding click reactions that weren’t toxic to cells and made “chemical reactions that don’t interfere with the normal biochemistry of life. This now allows us to attach all kinds of molecules to biological ones,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its announcement.
Bertozzi, the newly-minted Nobel laureate, spearheaded the field of bioorthogonal chemistry to help map cells. She joins just seven other women granted the award — out of 191 laureates — including CRISPR pioneers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their groundbreaking Cas9 gene editing work that has elevated both to new heights and made Doudna a household name in some circles.
Sharpless joins a limited club of repeat winners: John Bardeen (’56, ’72), Marie Curie (’03, ’11), Linus Pauling (’54, ’62) and Frederick Sanger (’58, ’80). The Nobel committee deemed Sharpless the originator of the “click chemistry” concept, which they described as “simple and reliable chemistry” that allow reactions to happen fast and avoid undesired byproducts.
He and Meldal independently put together the “crown jewel” of click: the copper catalyzed azide-alkyne cycloaddition. The chemical reaction plays out in the development of drugs, mapping DNA and creating new materials, the Nobel committee wrote.
The Nobel Committee for Chemistry announces the winners: Carolyn Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)
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In comes Bertozzi, who escalated the work of Meldal and Sharpless by mapping glycans, biomolecules on the surface of cells. Her developments, including a metal-free click reaction, work inside humans. The research is at the heart of new treatments being tested in clinical trials today.
In summary, the trio’s findings have “taken chemistry into the era of functionalism.” On the press and committee call right after the announcement, Bertozzi said bioorthogonal and click chemistry are “still in its early phases” and that the impacts will be seen in biotech and pharma for years to come.
Bertozzi’s work has led to the foundation of nine biotechs (a figure she tallied up prior to an interview with Endpoints News in May), including Palleon Pharmaceuticals, InterVenn, Lycia Therapeutics and others. The latter came together out of a 24-hour humdrum of venture capital interest after she tweeted out a preprint her group had posted on ChemRxiv that described LYTACs, she previously recalled to Endpoints.
Asked by reporters what applications of her she thinks are making a lot of impact, she said in medicine, the main one is the delivery of therapeutics “to make sure that drugs go to the right place and stay away from the wrong place.”
Bertozzi directs Stanford’s Sarafan ChEM-H, short for Chemistry, Engineering, and Medicine for Human Health. She influences the next generation as a teacher but also as a parent who helps with her children’s science fair projects. Musical interests populate her free time as she enjoys playing pop, rock n’ roll and jazz songs on the piano, and occasionally “keep[s] up with karaoke nights at some of the clubs in San Francisco.” She’s also a self-proclaimed “fitness buff.”
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator has also co-founded Grace Science, a biotech that is attempting to translate research out of the Grace Science Foundation to create treatments for NGLY1 deficiency and other indications. Bertozzi has served on the Eli Lilly board of directors and research advisory board at GSK.