Shmunis Family Innovation Awards in Cancer Therapeutics Awardee

October 2023

Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, Baker Family Director of Stanford ChEM-H, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, was awarded a $50,000 Shmunis Family Innovation Award in Cancer Therapeutics for her project entitled “From inhibition to activation: A novel siglec-based strategy for cancer immunotherapy.” Bertozzi studies the roles of cell surface carbohydrates (sugar molecules) in health and disease. She received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2022 for inventing bioorthogonal chemistry, a type of chemistry that can be performed within living organisms without interfering with biological systems. Bioorthogonal chemistry has countless applications in research and medicine.

An exciting recent innovation in cancer therapy has been the development of methods to harness the body’s own immune system to attack tumor cells. However, current immunotherapy approaches are only effective against certain types of cancers, and many patients cannot yet benefit from these therapies. Indeed, cancer cells employ a variety of tricks to evade the immune system. One example is a high expression of sugar molecules on the surface of tumor cells. These sugars are recognized by proteins known as Siglecs, which are, in turn, expressed on the surface of immune cells and generally act to reduce immune activity. With the support of the Shmunis Family Innovation Award in Cancer Therapeutics, Bertozzi plans to manipulate the activity of Siglecs to both prevent recognition of tumor-associated sugars and promote immune activity against the tumors. The idea is to synthesize molecules – called SigAbs – that will bind Siglecs with high affinity, thus preventing Siglecs from binding sugars, and, in addition, to fuse SigAbs with molecules that will stimulate immune function. The ability of these molecules to enhance tumor-cell killing will then be tested in mouse models of cancer. The proposal will both increase our understanding of Siglec biology and facilitate the development of new cancer immunotherapies.