Bertozzi, Morten Meldal of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and K. Barry Sharpless of Scripps Research in California received equal shares of the prize. Meldal and Sharpless have been recognized for their creation of a widely used technique called “click chemistry”, which allows scientists to efficiently, quickly and selectively connect two chemical building blocks to create more complex molecules, including drugs.
Bertozzi, 55, was honored for taking click chemistry “to a new dimension” by discovering how to use it in living cells. The technique allows scientists to precisely manipulate cells with chemical tools to learn how they behave whether they are healthy or diseased.
Laura Kiessling, a professor of chemistry at MIT, said Bertozzi’s work provides “a powerful new way” to monitor and isolate molecules from cells in ways not previously possible. “It changed the way people think about doing science,” she said. “There have been other advancements, but they all build on his work.”
Bertozzi pioneered the technique to better understand the importance of complex sugar molecules called glycans. Scientists had long suspected that glycans might be involved in cancer, but lacked the right tools to study their role in disease.
His first demonstration of click chemistry in cells, published in 2004, allowed Bertozzi to begin monitoring these glycans. This work led to a seminal paper in 2014 where she showed that many cancer cells decorate themselves with a particular type of glycan that helps them suppress and evade immune system sentinels that would normally attack a growing tumor.
“It really catalyzed a whole new area of medicine,” said Dr. Jim Broderick, CEO of Palleon Pharmaceuticals, a Waltham-based biotech company he co-founded with Bertozzi in 2016, based on his discovery. She remains scientific advisor to the company.
Palleon is completing an early clinical trial of a drug designed to make tumors more vulnerable to the immune system by unmasking their glycan disguise.
Another company, San Francisco-based Shasqi, to which Bertozzi is an advisor, is starting an interim clinical trial that uses click chemistry directly in the body to keep the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin inactivated until it comes into contact with a tumor. CEO and founder José M. Mejía Oneto said the approach allows the company to administer higher doses of chemo without the usual side effects.
“We are only scratching the surface of what can be done with this technology.”
Even though click chemistry is only just beginning to lead to therapeutic applications, the scientists emphasize that Bertozzi’s contributions to basic science should not be minimized. Her work formed the cornerstone of a larger field called “bioorthogonal chemistry,” a term she coined to reflect chemical reactions carried out inside living organisms that do not disrupt their normal functions.
“So many scientists use these reactions to monitor things in cells,” even by people who aren’t chemists, Kiessling said. “It’s just become a tool that people can use widely in many different fields.”
Bertozzi may live on the west coast, but his heart remains with his hometown teams. She describes herself as a ‘rabid’ Red Sox and Celtics fan and fondly recalls having her photo taken with Larry Bird when he made an appearance at Harvard Coop in the 1980s .
“I bet Larry didn’t realize he was having his picture taken with a future Nobel laureate,” she said with a chuckle. “My mum was a big fan. She dragged me and my sister there; we stood in line for about an hour.
They brought home an autographed poster of Bird that her mother “hung in the middle of her living room like it was a piece of art,” she recalled.
Bertozzi graduated from Harvard University in 1988 and during her college years played keyboards in a band with Tom Morello called Bored of Education. Morello then co-founded Rage Against the Machine.
“That’s maybe the thing I’m best known for,” she said. “He recruited me into his band and we played college nights at Harvard and around the Boston area and then he left to be a superstar. And I didn’t have the same talent as him. So I think I made the right choice to go to graduate school.
Morello shouted out to Bertozzi on Twitter on Wednesday.
Every time fall rolls around, current and former researchers in Bertozzi’s lab wonder if this will finally be the year their beloved mentor wins the Nobel Prize.
Mireille Kamariza, who was a graduate student in Bertozzi’s lab from 2012 to 2019, said after her initial shock at hearing the news, her first thought was “it’s about time.”
As a young graduate student, Kamariza recalls a 30-minute meeting with Bertozzi that turned into a three-hour discussion. “I felt like my ideas mattered, she has this incredible ability to bring out the talents in every person.”
Bertozzi, the daughter of MIT physics professor William Bertozzi, was “naturally fascinated by science,” according to a biography published when she won the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2010. Her mother was the late Norma Bertozzi, a Davis graduate scholar with distinction with a degree in French from Wellesley College in 1998.
Her father “encouraged her and her sisters to explore the technological tools of his projects and demonstrations,” her bio states.
The Nobel Prize is the cornerstone of Bertozzi’s dozens of research and teaching awards. She received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant”, and in 2010 became the first woman to receive the Lemelson-MIT Prize, a prestigious award for invention. This year she was one of three recipients of the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, an international award “for achievements in the interests of mankind and friendly relations among peoples”, and will also receive the Helen Dean King Prize. 2022 from the Wistar Institute, which recognizes “outstanding women in biomedical research.
Like news of his Nobel spread, Bertozzi quickly became a point of local pride in Lexington, where she graduated from Lexington High School in 1984. Her honor was noted on Twitter by Suzie Barry, another 1984 graduate and board member. from the city.
Sharpless graduated in 1963 from Dartmouth College and taught at both Harvard and MIT. He was also awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, one of five people to win the prize twice in their lifetime.
John Ellement and Shannon Larson of Globe staff contributed to this story.
Ryan Cross can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RLCscienceboss. Emily Sweeney can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.