Stanford University chemistry professor Carolyn Bertozzi on Wednesday won the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry for being a trailblazer in the field of bioorthogonal chemistry.
Bertozzi was awarded the prize after founding bioorthogonal chemistry — or "not interacting with biology" — a series of chemical reactions that can make it possible to study molecules and their interactions with living things without interrupting with "natural biological processes," Stanford officials said.
Since she developed the technique in the late 1990s, she has used it to study the role of sugar in biology, develop more accurate tests for diseases and created a medicine that can attack tumors and is currently being tested.
In the beginning of her work, Bertozzi found particular interest in glycans, a complex carbohydrate molecule known to be hard to produce in the lab and analyze, despite being a key component in life.
She eventually found a way to attach fluorescent tags to sugar molecules in live cells without disrupting the cell's biochemistry, through a modified version of the century-old Staudinger reaction.
This breakthrough allows chemists to study chemistry as it actually occurs in living organisms, and has since been used to study how cells build proteins, produce energy storage materials and research cancer drugs.
"Her work has had remarkable real-world impact, unleashing new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to treat disease," said Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. "Carolyn is so deserving of this honor, and all of us at Stanford are tremendously proud to call her one of our own."
Bertozzi shares the $10 million Swedish kronor prize — roughly $1 million USD — with a professor at University of Copenhagen and a professor at Scripps Research, as their work collectively developed the world of bioorthogonal chemistry, said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that awards the Nobel Prizes.
"Research at the interface of chemistry and biology has always been where I practice, and having a Nobel Prize in chemical biology is really great for the field," said Bertozzi. "The field is not so old, but the impact is clear."
Bertozzi said she was first notified of the news via phone call at 1:43 a.m. The first person she called was her father, a retired physics professor.
"He's 91 and, of course, he was just overjoyed," said Bertozzi. "And then he called my sisters for me, and we've been texting. One of my sisters and my dad watched it live."
During her time at Stanford, she's been known to be a mentor to over 250 undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows.
She founded and leads the Sarafan ChEM-H Chemistry-Biology Interface Predoctoral Training Program, which trains chemistry, biology and medical researchers to bridge the gap between their work. She also helped kickstark Stanford's Postbaccalaureate Program in Target Discovery to encourage college graduates from underserved backgrounds to pursue doctorate studies in science programs.
"I know that whatever my lab can contribute to the world, it's a sliver compared to what the totality of all of my mentees will contribute to the world," said Bertozzi. "Mentoring students gives you an opportunity to amplify the impact of your science, because the knowledge that they accumulate from working with you becomes the kernel of a whole new scientific enterprise in their own hands down the line. That really is the cycle of science."