Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi received the 2022 Helen Dean King Award from The Wistar Institute in recognition of her outstanding biomedical research on understanding how sugars that coat our cells impact diseases.
“This award is an opportunity to celebrate the life and career of a great pioneering, ceiling shattering scientist, Helen Dean King, who carved a path for many of us in science,” Bertozzi explained.
The sugar structures on cell surfaces are complex, diverse, dynamic, and in motion. “I like to think of them as long branches, trees, shrubs moving and swaying as wind blows,” she analogized. When the immune system “tastes” the sugar structures on the surface of cells, it decides whether the “flavor” is bad and if so, attacks the cell.
Central to Bertozzi’s work is the discovery that the structure of sugar on cancer cells is different than the structure of sugars on healthy cells, and that affects how the immune system interacts with them. Cancer cells produce more sugar on their cell surface than healthy cells, increasing sialic acid on the cell surface. Sialic acid blocks the immune system and makes cancer cells “taste good”, sparing them from attack.
Bertozzi’s theory: removing sialic acid from the cancer cell surface will change the sugar label on cancer cells from friend to enemy, putting the immune system on guard.
To do this, Bertozzi and her team made a molecule she refers to as a “cancer-specific lawn mower” that “mows” sialic acid from cancer cell surfaces. The molecule was created with a method referred to as click chemistry. Click chemistry allows scientists to take large complex molecules and snap them together to create new molecules. Bertozzi used this concept to attach (“click”) an enzyme called sialidase to antibodies. Applying this newly created molecule to cancer cells successfully limits or stops tumor growth in laboratory experiments. Bertozzi is now poised to test the molecule in clinical trials.
A champion of the transformative power of science, Bertozzi advised, “Do the highest quality science you can do with the most diligence and most attention to detail, and good things will follow.”
After sharing her personal challenges with research projects, gender discrimination, and homophobia, she left her audience with encouraging advice:
“… sometimes, you can’t get the opportunity you want in the near term. Look for what opportunities are available to you and get on that bus and go. Don’t be afraid to take opportunities that you didn’t envision for yourself.”
Dr. Bertozzi is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. She is a past recipient of the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences and the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, and most recently the Wolf Prize in Chemistry.
Learn more about Wistar’s Women & Science Program.