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Inventor of bioorthogonal chemical reactions receives 2020 Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize

Carolyn Bertozzi, Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, California, has been awarded Solvay’s prestigious “Chemistry for the Future” Prize, which some in the scientific community view as a sort of “pre-Nobel”. She took the honors for her work on chemical reactions in living cells. Her discoveries could enable significant breakthroughs in the treatment of numerous diseases, including cancer.

 
Creating bonds

The Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize is awarded every two years to honor outstanding achievements in fundamental science, but it goes way beyond that. True to the legacy of the company’s founder, Ernest Solvay, a man who was fully committed and even passionate about scientific research, the prize was created to recognize major discoveries that serve the advancement of chemistry as well as serve human progress.

In fact, “from science will derive the progress of humankind,” said Ernest Solvay, who famously created the Solvay Conferences for the simple joy of gathering the most brilliant scientific minds of the early 20th century in the same room. Following that same dedication to the impact of fundamental research, the Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize rewards researchers whose findings contribute to breakthroughs in the advancement of science, regardless of the Solvay group’s business activities.

It therefore also reinforces the Group’s desire to stay open to the outside world, to bond Solvay people and, in this case, the world of academia and fundamental scientific research. Solvay feels strongly about maintaining its reputation as a respected and trustworthy partner in the world of scientific research, one that cares about the essential role of chemistry to solve the world’s major challenges, and therefore not be the type of company that limits its scope and interests solely to its activities as a chemical group. 

“This prize honors the inventors, the fundamental researchers, the people who are rethinking mechanisms and dynamics,” says Ilham Kadri, Solvay CEO pictured below. “Having that fundamental thinking about how to reinvent chemistry at the service of humanity is definitely important for Solvay.”

CEO Ilham Kadri

 
Here’s to the risk-takers...

Created in 2013, the year of the 150th anniversary of Solvay’s founding, the Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize comes with a €300,000 dotation. The prize winner is selected by an independent jury of six renowned scientists, including a Nobel laureate. “If you reward somebody who has been working very hard, who is trying something new, you’re rewarding a risk-taker,” says Jean-Marie Solvay, the president of the International Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry, about the type of researchers this prize aims to honor.

  
Professor Bertozzi is the fourth laureate, following the steps of Professor Peter G. Schultz (USA) in 2013, Professor Ben Feringa (Netherlands) in 2015 and Professor Susumu Kitagawa (Japan) in 2017. This is what Ilham Kadri had to say about this groundbreaking female scientist: “I am both inspired by her fabulous work and proud to grant her this award on behalf of Solvay. We firmly believe that her work marks a spectacular, original advancement in chemistry, with likely life-saving applications.”

This prize honors the inventors, the fundamental researchers, the people who are rethinking mechanisms and dynamics,

says Ilham Kadri, Solvay CEO

New therapeutics and diagnostics

As one can easily imagine, the scientific findings of all these brilliant scientists is hardly summed up in simple layman’s terms. Carolyn Bertozzi, a pioneer in the field of chemical biology, is no exception. The prize rewards her work on bioorthogonal chemical reactions, a term she coined in the early 2000s to describe chemical coupling reactions that can take place within living cells without toxic side reactions, enabling the cells to maintain their integrity.

Because they distinguish the cell without killing it, these reactions can be used to label specific molecules in the cells for imaging or to monitor molecular changes due to the progression of a disease, for example. This opens new possibilities to develop new therapeutics and diagnostics, particularly in the field of cancers and infectious diseases.

King Philippe, Ilham and Carolyn

 
Fit for a king

Professor Bertozzi received her prize during a ceremony that was held on 10 March 2020 at the Palais des Académies in Brussels, in the presence of King Philippe of the Belgians and Solvay CEO Ilham Kadri.

Other prominent figures and long-time partners of the Group were there to celebrate science and oustanding Bertozzi's research works as well, such as Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss explorer  who founded the Solar Impulse Foundation and the aforementioned Jean-Marie Solvay, as well as two Nobel Laureates: Ben Feringa, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 and winner of the Solvay Prize in 2015, and François Englert, Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013.