Bioorthogonal Chemical Reactions

A pioneer inventor in the field of biotechnology, Carolyn Bertozzi is internationally renowned for her research in the biopharmaceutical industry. Bertozzi has more than 225 publications, a prestigious election to the National Academy of Sciences, and is one of the youngest recipients ever of a MacArthur “Genius” Award. She has been recognized by the American Chemical Society, selected for a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering, and also received the $500K Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2010.

Bertozzi grew up in the 1960s, a time where men dominated the field of science. Despite this, she always knew that she wanted to be a physicist. Her father, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had hopes that Carolyn would become a nuclear physicist when she grew up. Although she didn’t end up pursuing physics, her desire to explore science would only grow, particularly in the realm of chemistry. 

Bertozzi attended Harvard University where she graduated with a B.S. in chemistry. She also holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. During her time in graduate school, under the mentorship of advisor Mark Bednarski, Bertozzi learned that multiple viruses could bind to sugars inside the body, which eventually led to her discovery of how sugars facilitate cell-to-cell communication. After graduate school Bertozzi joined the University of California, Berkeley faculty where she worked with students and post-doctoral fellows on research to further understand inter-cellular communication.

Through her research at the University of California, Berkeley, Bertozzi discovered several innovations including the concept of biorthogonal chemical reactions. Bioorthogonal chemical reactions are unique because they don’t interact with molecules. This allows scientists to observe how proteins, sugars, and lipids behave within live cells and organisms without worrying about dangerous consequences. Bertozzi has used chemical imaging to observe sugar molecules in live animals. Chemical imaging is a process done by a machine to create a visual image of everything inside the sample that is being observed, similar to an x-ray machine. She has also used this mapping technique to observe the behavior of patterns in organisms that can cause cancer.

Carolyn Bertozzi is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and Professor, by courtesy, of Radiology and of Chemical and Systems Biology at Stanford University. Bertozzi is also the Director of Stanford University’s institute of Chemistry, Engineering and Medicine for Human Health (ChEM-H). She was previously a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley and is also credited with creating the University of California, Berkeley Chemical Biology Graduate Program. Bertozzi’s work enabled her to start Redwood Bioscience with a former graduate student, David Rabuka in 2008. Redwood Bioscience is creating novel protein drugs with properties that focus on in-house product development and is in close collaboration with other pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.