Biochemist wins $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize

Breakthroughs leading to sophisticated cancer, tuberculosis, and arthritis drugs, as well as cell imaging nanotechnology, get recognition.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
Carolyn Bertozzi has won the prestigious $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for 2010. Bertozzi Research Group

The 2010 Lemelson-MIT Prize has gone to a pioneer in something most Americans have likely never heard of but that might one day save their lives: glycobiology.

Carolyn Bertozzi, the T.Z. and Irmgard Chu Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, has won the prestigious $500,000 award. Her biotechnology breakthroughs have applications in new types of anticancer drugs and in imaging nanotechnology used for detection and diagnosis of cancer cells, the Lemelson-MIT Program announced Wednesday.

Glycobiology is roughly the study of glycans, also known as complex carbohydrates, which play a vital role in cell-to-cell interaction.

Bertozzi discovered ways to engineer the behavior of glycans and cell protein secretions, and has been working with pharmaceutical experts on developing drugs to manipulate that behavior in order to treat things like tuberculosis, arthritis, and cancer.

Bertozzi told CNET in an email that winning the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize will not only draw attention to her start-up company and its work, but also point the spotlight on all the people working in a lifesaving field that gets little, if any, notice.

"The recognition associated with this award brings well-deserved attention to the fields of chemical biology and glycobiology, both of which have been absolutely foundational for my work, and to the notion that tools from chemistry can propel the biomedical sciences in new directions," Bertozzi said in an email.

Bertozzi was the first to invent a bioorthogonal chemical reaction, a way to label biomolecules with specific functions for the purpose of imaging, according to MIT. This is what led to the development of cell imaging nanotechnology to detect and diagnose potential cancer cells in humans.

In addition to being a recognized world expert in chemical biology and glycobiology, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences member is also known for her ability to pass that knowledge on to other like minds. Bertozzi has mentored approximately 130 budding chemists at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels, is credited with founding the graduate chemical biology program at UC Berkeley, and has won several teaching awards.

"Carolyn Bertozzi takes scientific development to a new level; beyond her extraordinary gift as a researcher and innovator, she collaborates with her students to push into new frontiers," Michael J. Cima, faculty director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, said in a statement.

The monetary part of the prize will also help Bertozzi on a personal level.

"From the personal standpoint, the prize will give me more flexibility with regard to child care--a challenge for all working families--and, accordingly, enable me to pursue new entrepreneurial activities that include students and other trainees," she said.

Bertozzi is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and director of the Molecular Foundry at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Her background includes an undergraduate chemistry degree from Harvard, a Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Berkeley, and a postdoctoral degree from UCSF in the field of cellular immunology.

Bertozzi will formally accept her prize at the Lemelson-MIT Program's Eureka Fest June 16-19. This year's student prize went to Erez Lieberman-Aiden, while the sustainability award went to BP Agrawal.

The Lemelson Foundation, founded by Jerome H. and Dorothy Lemelson, has given more than $150 million to researchers since its inception. Jerome Lemelson is known for his prolific amount of inventions and patents. He championed inventors' rights and challenged the limits of patent law.