Bertozzi: As Infectious As Ever
At the Aug. 22 ACS Presidential Symposium on the impact of science and technology on global health care, in Boston, I reconnected with Carolyn R. Bertozzi of UC Berkeley.
I profiled her in 2001, after she won a MacArthur Fellowship, one of three women chemists who were among the fellows named in 2000. After more than a decade of following her career from a distance, I again had the pleasure of listening to her easily accessible explanation of the theme of her research. Her enthusiasm is as infectious as ever.
Bertozzi has pioneered bioorthogonal chemistry, which she defines as chemistry that does not interfere or interact with biological systems. This chemistry—which involves introducing a functionality in sugars that get incorporated into glycolipids and glycoproteins that will specifically undergo a rapid chemical reaction with a molecule that serves as a probe–is having a huge impact on the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries but is still a largely “unknown universe,” she said. Among the well-established applications of Bertozzi’s chemistry is imaging of the glycome, the universe of glycans or carbohydrate oligomers on cell membranes that is a dynamic indicator of the cell’s physiological state. “When cells transform from one state to another, there is a corresponding change in the glycome,” she said. “To the extent that glycans can be used as indicators of health disease, you can understand the interest in imaging glycans; you could you detect tumors in vivo without invading the body.”
Another major application, Bertozzi said, is protein engineering through site-specific modification. Protein modification, she said, is now a major platform for drug development at biotech companies such as CovX (which Pfizer has acquired), Ambrx, Redwood Bioscience (which Bertozzi founded), and Allozyne.
Bioorthogonal chemistry is an open field waiting to be mined, Bertozzi said. The textbook has not been written, many more reactions are awaiting discovery and development.
During our informal chat before the program began, Bertozzi mentioned that she continues to indulge her passion of working with high school students to encourage and support their interest in science. I wondered how she still could find the time, and she said that these days the students come to her, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which hosts monthly lectures called Nano High. Her February 9, 2009, lecture is available in video. Watch and see why Bertozzi is such a great teacher.