“The most important figure in the development of carbohydrate synthesis using enzymatic catalysis and a major contributor to glycobiology”—that’s the way chemistry professor George M. Whitesides of Harvard University describes his former grad student and postdoc Chi-Huey Wong. Wong has earned the 2012 Arthur C. Cope Award for developing pioneering techniques for the chemical and enzymatic synthesis of carbohydrates and glycoproteins. These techniques have solved major problems and created new opportunities in carbohydrate chemistry and biology.
Wong and coworkers have devised a variety of innovative methods for the chemical and enzymatic synthesis of complex carbohydrates, glycoproteins, and related substances. And they have used directed evolution and genetic engineering to develop new enzymes and substrates for these syntheses.
The strategies they have developed “elegantly fuse chemistry and biology into a novel, environmentally friendly approach for large-scale synthesis and for the study of carbohydrate-mediated biological recognition reactions associated with cancer, bacterial and viral infections, and immunological function,” according to chemistry professor Jeffery W. Kelly of Scripps Research Institute. The Wong group’s “groundbreaking research also laid the framework for much of the current interest in carbohydrate microarrays, posttranslational protein glycosylation, and carbohydrate-based drug discovery and vaccine design.”
Wong and coworkers achieved the first synthesis of a glycoprotein and the first large-scale enzymatic synthesis of oligosaccharides. The researchers developed new aldol reactions and irreversible transesterifications that have been widely used in asymmetric synthesis.
They developed a programmable approach to carbohydrate synthesis that provides a relatively fast, automated route to oligosaccharides for new cancer vaccines, carbohydrate microarrays, and other applications. And new probes they developed to identify posttranslational glycosylation modifications of proteins can be used to identify new glycoprotein markers associated with cancer and other diseases.
“Chi-Huey’s contribution to carbohydrate synthesis is unmatched,” notes Ryoji Noyori, president of the Japanese research institution RIKEN. “His seminal accomplishments have totally changed the way carbohydrate research is carried out. Without him, the current level of this significant scientific field could not have been attained.”
Wong, 63, received B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemistry and biochemistry at National Taiwan University. He earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1982 and worked as a postdoc, both in Whitesides’ group. He joined the faculty of Texas A&M University in 1983 and moved to Scripps in 1989. Since 2006, he has also served as president of Academia Sinica, in Taipei, Taiwan.
Wong’s previous honors include a 1993 Cope Scholar Award from ACS, the 1999 Claude S. Hudson Award in Carbohydrate Chemistry from the ACS Division of Carbohydrate Chemistry, and the ACS Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry in 2005.
He could well add some other major prizes to his collection in years to come. “I believe there will eventually be new Nobel Prizes in carbohydrate biochemistry,” Whitesides notes, “and Chi-Huey will certainly be a strong candidate for one.”