Behind the Nobel Prize: Carolyn Bertozzi’s Groundbreaking Chemistry

Tracing the journey of Carolyn Bertozzi, from her humble beginnings to her groundbreaking Nobel Prize-winning work in bioorthogonal chemistry, and her impact on healthcare and material sciences

By NHJ staff writer

June 28, 2023

In the world of chemistry, few names shine as brightly as that of Carolyn R. Bertozzi. The Stanford University professor, recently awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her groundbreaking work in bioorthogonal chemistry, has a story that is as rich and diverse as her scientific contributions.

Born on October 10, 1966, Bertozzi displayed a keen interest in science from a young age. Despite her early aptitude, the path that led her to becoming a chemistry pioneer was not always clear-cut or conventional. Bertozzi’s journey to the pinnacle of scientific discovery was, indeed, marked by an eclectic mix of passion, resilience, and an unusual interlude with rock music.

After earning her A.B. summa cum laude in chemistry from Harvard University, where she impressed Professor Joe Grabowski with her dedication, Bertozzi was awarded the Thomas T. Hoopes Undergraduate Thesis Prize. During this period, she also made an unexpected detour, playing in several bands, one of which included future Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

Click chemistry is a modular, efficient approach to synthesizing molecules by ‘snapping’ together small units, much like building blocks, creating new compounds rapidly and precisely.

Bertozzi’s journey took a challenging turn when Bednarski was diagnosed with colon cancer and took a leave of absence. Left without direct supervision, Bertozzi displayed remarkable resilience, completing her Ph.D. work and setting a strong foundation for her subsequent research in the complex field of glycobiology.

Nobel Prize-Winning Work

Bertozzi was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her remarkable contributions to the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry. This recognition underlines the profound and transformative impact her research has had, not just within the scientific community, but also in sectors such as healthcare and materials science.

Click chemistry, the science that Bertozzi shared the Nobel Prize for, is akin to building molecules like snapping Lego blocks together. Her breakthrough lies in the development of bioorthogonal chemistry, a variant of click chemistry that can occur inside living organisms without interrupting their normal functions. By eliminating the need for a toxic copper catalyst, Bertozzi made it possible to perform chemical reactions within living systems.

The value of this advancement is immense. For one, it has revolutionized the way we visualize and understand cellular processes. Bioorthogonal reactions enable scientists to “tag” specific molecules within a cell, much like adding a GPS tracker, without affecting the rest of the cell. This is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, offering unprecedented precision in tracking molecules in their natural state within the complex biological environment.

Perhaps most importantly, Bertozzi’s work has opened the door to developing more targeted treatments in healthcare, particularly in oncology. The techniques allow for the design of treatments that can directly target and kill cancer cells without disturbing healthy ones, providing a new way to combat diseases that have historically been challenging to treat. The potential of this approach is currently being tested, with one click chemistry-based drug undergoing phase 2 clinical trials.

Bertozzi’s work extends beyond medical applications. It also holds promise for the material industry, allowing the quick and sustainable production of large amounts of polymers. This has the potential to significantly speed up material production and make it more environmentally friendly.

A Generational Inspiration

In the midst of her astounding academic and scientific success, Bertozzi has remained an authentic figure. Open about her sexuality, she serves as a role model for the LGBTQ+ community in academia and science, demonstrating that personal identity and world-class scientific achievement are not mutually exclusive.

Bertozzi’s journey from the jam sessions of her youth to the sterile laboratories of her Nobel Prize-winning research demonstrates that the road to scientific discovery is rarely a straight path. Instead, it is a testament to the power of passion, determination, and resilience. Through her remarkable story, Carolyn R. Bertozzi continues to inspire the next generation of scientists to chart their unique courses in the vast universe of discovery.

This article is not professional healthcare advice. Please consult your physician for personalized medical advice.

New Health Journal (NHJ) reports developments in health research, health trends, and wellness options. Our nonprofit mission is to advance public health and wellness knowledge by publishing concise digests of useful and interesting health topics.