Kathryn Whitehead, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, has been named by Popular Science as a 2015 Brilliant Ten winner for her work on drug delivery systems.

Annually, Popular Science combs through hundreds of nominations to select the brightest minds in engineering and science. Whitehead was selected for designing nanoparticles that treat disease by delivering therapeutic drugs to specific areas in the body. Her research will revolutionize how we treat diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and hereditary disorders.

We expect these targeted treatments to extend the lives of cancer patients while increasing their quality of life through a reduction in side effects.

Kathryn Whitehead, Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

Whitehead synthesized and tested nearly 5,000 nanoparticle delivery vehicles en route to identifying a select few that potently shuttle drugs into exactly the right cells. This feat was challenging, in part, because the body’s immune system considers therapeutic nanoparticles to be foreign substances that need to be destroyed. However, Whitehead’s nanoparticles circumvent the immune system and are free to deliver medicine to cells in many parts of the body. Whitehead’s research group is now using nanoparticles to engineer therapies for maladies that include inflammatory bowel disease, chronic wounds, and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“Cancer therapy is so difficult for patients, in large part, because of the toxic side effects of chemotherapy,” says Whitehead. “In contrast, our targeted nanoparticles deliver drugs only to cancerous tissue, sparing healthy cells. We expect these targeted treatments to extend the lives of cancer patients while increasing their quality of life through a reduction in side effects.”

Whitehead’s approach to finding the right nanoparticles for drug delivery was unorthodox in that it required her to examine a very large number of nanoparticles using high-throughput screening.

“Although high-throughput screening has not been a well-accepted approach to scientific discovery, I felt strongly that we needed to test many compounds to maximize our chances of success,” says Whitehead. Her hard work has paid off in the discovery of these nanoparticles, and she has broadened the scientific community’s understanding of how drug delivery chemistry affects efficacy.

 

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