Carolyn Bertozzi, the Anne and Robert Bass professor of chemistry at Stanford University and the Baker Family Director of Stanford’s interdisciplinary institute Sarafan ChEM-H, has been named the recipient of the 2024 Priestley Medal, the American Chemical Society’s highest honor. The prize becomes the latest of many honors Bertozzi—also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator—has received. In 2022 alone, she shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, received the Wolf Prize, and the Welch Award.
“Carolyn Bertozzi is one of the brightest stars in the chemistry firmament,” wrote Wendy Young, a former senior vice president at Genentech who now works in venture capital, in a nomination letter.
Bertozzi is known for developing bioorthogonal chemistry: reactions that can target only specific molecules against the chemically complex background of a living cell. “She always talks about it as . . . they see each other across a crowded room, and they just have to meet one another and react,” says Jennifer Kohler, a chemical biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who worked in Bertozzi’s lab as a postdoc.
Aiming to label cell surface glycans involved in cell recognition and signaling, Bertozzi and her lab developed a way to use click chemistry, which previously required copper to catalyze azide-alkyne reactions, in living cells that can’t tolerate high copper concentrations. They first introduced monomeric sugars with azide functional groups, which cells can then incorporate into glycan structures (Science 2000, DOI: 10.1126/science.287.5460.2007). Then they added a cyclic alkyne, that was able to react with the azide with no catalyst because of its ring strain (PNAS, 2008, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0707090104). The resulting click reaction labels glycans, but does not interfere with the other chemistry cells carry out.
Initially, the concept of bioorthogonal chemistry required a lot of explanation, but the tool caught on and has become widespread, even in biology labs that do very little chemistry. According to chemical biologist Jeremy Baskin of Cornell University, “Now, thanks to Carolyn’s work, and all the click chemistry people, this is just part of the vernacular.”
Bertozzi’s lab has continued to develop tools to investigate the glycobiology of cancer, tuberculosis, and other diseases, transitioning over time to a focus on therapeutics. She has spun off numerous startup companies using different glycobiology approaches to tackle disease; for example, Palleon Pharmaceuticals, which is developing antibody-linked enzymes to remove glycans that shield cancer cells from the immune system, and Lycia Therapeutics, which uses glycan signaling to pull cell surface proteins into a degradation pathway. She continues to explore new types of chemistry to alter glycans. “I think there’s maybe a higher likelihood of success if we design new types of drugs that are a better match for these new glycotargets that we’re going after,” she says, adding that she hopes to see glycosciences break into the pharmaceutical mainstream in the near future.
Bertozzi is widely recognized for her service to chemists and to chemistry. She is the founding editor of the journal ACS Central Science and has mentored many trainees who praise her big-picture strategic thinking, fearlessness in taking on risky projects, and generosity with her time. Baskin, who earned his PhD in Bertozzi’s lab, recalls an orientation during which “she said something to the effect of, ‘You work for me for 5 years. I work for you the rest of my life.’ ”
She also advocates for inclusion and diversity, or what she describes as “making chemistry into a field and a science that everybody can contribute to, everybody’s contributions can be valued within.” While this has long been an area Bertozzi cares about, she says, “I think somehow, when you say these things with a Nobel Prize in your pocket, fewer eyes might roll.”
This story was updated on June 21, 2023, to correct an incorrect citation year. The paper in which Carolyn Bertozzi’s lab showed that monomeric sugars with azide modifications can be incorporated into glycan structures was published in 2000, not 2007.
This story was updated on June 21, 2023, to restore a closing paragraph about Carolyn Bertozzi’s advocacy for inclusion and diversity. It was originally omitted because of a production error.