Carolyn Bertozzi (right), who holds appointments in both chemistry and molecular and cell biology at Berkeley, has won the 2010 Lemelson-MIT Prize for “her pioneering inventions in the field of biotechnology”. The $500,000 prize has been dubbed the “Oscar for inventors”, and is awarded to outstanding mid-career inventors “who have developed a patented product or process of significant value to society”.

Bertozzi was cited for a number of specific contributions. She developed the concept of bioorthogonal chemical reactions, a term she coined to describe chemical reactions that neither interact nor interfere with biological molecules. Researchers are using these bioorthogonal reactions for a myriad of applications. In her own lab, Bertozzi is using bioorthogonal reactions to label cell surface sugars with imaging probes. This could potentially be important in cancer detection.

Building on this work, Bertozzi developed a genetically encoded aldehyde tag technology. The technology enables site-specific modification of proteins expressed in any cell type. Finally, Bertozzi developed a cell nanoinjector.  An individual carbon nanotube is mounted on the tip of an atomic force microscope. The “cargo” for the cell is attached to the nanotube with a chemical bond. After the “nanoneedle” penetrates the cell membrane, the cargo is released into the cell. Unlike previous technologies, Bertozzi’s nanoinjector causes no visible harm to the cell.

In an email exchange with CNet, Bertozzi said the prize would help her 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.

At the university, Bertozzi has won a number of teaching awards since she joined the faculty in 1996. She has mentored around 130 budding chemists and established the graduate chemical biology program. In addition to her faculty appointments at Berkeley, Bertozzi is the Director of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...