Carolyn Bertozzi's innovative approach involves chemicals that don't interact with the molecules in the body, only with each other. But her in vivo chemistry has great potential for studying cells in living organisms and creating new diagnostics, and perhaps treatments, for disease.
"We're using the mouse as a reaction vessel, designing chemical reactions that will teach us about biology and disease without causing physiological harm," said Bertozzi, a professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "It's a really powerful technique, with the ability to change how we think about applying chemical processes in biology."
She and her colleagues report their novel chemical experiments - the first reaction in a living organism between two chemicals that don't react with the organism - in the Aug. 19 issue of Nature.
In this particular experiment, they showed that they could use this type of chemical reaction to tag cells in live mice, specifically, to attach tracer molecules to sugars on the surface of cells. The sugars Bertozzi targeted are produced abundantly by inflamed cells and by cancer cells, which means her technique could be used to attach medical tracers to such cells to allow doctors to pinpoint them in the body.
"The fact that this works is remarkable," wrote David A. Tirrell of the California Institute of Technology in an accompanying News & Views article in Nature. "The labeling strategy described by Bertozzi and colleagues allows one to probe the set of sugars arrayed by the cell, to explore biosynthetic pathways and to examine the functional consequences of modifying the complement of cell-surface sugars."