Lee was cited for decades of pioneering research into the role of carbohydrates in signaling processes in the body. While genes and the proteins they code seem to get most of the attention in the news media, Lee said, "it's not going to be a complete story without carbohydrates. Without proteins' final adornment with carbohydrates, most of them don't function properly."
For four decades, Lee has applied a mixture of biological and chemical tools and techniques to study carbohydrates abundant on the surfaces of cells in higher animals.
His pioneering accomplishments include the development of neoglycoconjugates, proteins and other substances modified with synthetic carbohydrates. The well-defined structures of the synthetic carbohydrates allow scientists to probe carbohydrate receptors' abilities to bind to messenger molecules.
In the late 1970s, Lee realized that carbohydrate receptors located in various systems of the body might be used as targets for drug delivery. At the time, his lab was studying the carbohydrate receptor system in liver cells.
"We realized that if we could design a small molecule with a high binding affinity [for the receptors], it could become a targeting device in drug or even DNA delivery," said Lee. Such a potent targeting process, now being tested by several biotech companies, might remarkably reduce drug dosage and side effects.
More recently, Lee's lab has been studying pathogenic bacteria. One focus is a strain of the bacteria E. coli that causes a frequently fatal kind of food poisoning. Illness results from a toxin produced by the bacteria that binds to a carbohydrate called galabiose on the surface of human cells. Another type of E. coli also binds to the same carbohydrate structure to attack human cells in the urinary tract, leading to severe bleeding and often to death.
While studying the effects of the toxin in the lab, Lee's group found that a quirk of evolution had given pigeon egg whites high levels of galabiose, which can neutralize the toxin and combat infection. Work is under way both to develop ways to use this finding as a potential new treatment for food poisoning and to learn why no other bird eggs seem to have such unusually high levels of galabiose.
Lee received the Hudson Award at a meeting of the American Chemical Society early in April in San Diego. The award, which includes a modest honorarium, is sponsored by the National Starch and Chemical Co.