Every year, Popular Science honors the 10 brightest young minds that are reshaping science, engineering, and the world. McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Kathryn Whitehead, PhD, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, was named one of the magazine’s 2015 honorees. She is a member of “The Brilliant 10” for her innovative work on drug delivery systems, for designing nanoparticles that treat disease by delivering therapeutic drugs to specific areas in the body. Her research will revolutionize how we treat formidable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and hereditary disorders.
During her career, Dr. Whitehead has 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, Dr. Whitehead’s nanoparticles circumvent the immune system and are free to deliver medicine to cells in many parts of the body, including the liver, the skin, and the intestine. Dr. Whitehead’s research group is now using her nanoparticles to engineer therapies for maladies that include inflammatory bowel disease, chronic wounds, and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
“Cancer therapy is so difficult for patients, in large part, because of the toxic side effects of chemotherapy,” Dr. Whitehead said. “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.”
Dr. 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,” Dr. Whitehead said. Her hard work has paid off in the discovery of these versatile nanoparticles, and she has broadened the scientific community’s understanding of how drug delivery chemistry affects efficacy. She is now able to predict which nanoparticles will work in living animals.
Dr. Whitehead credits much of her scientific success to plain old perseverance; her lab’s mascot is the honey badger, an animal known for its determination. “People look at me like I’m crazy when I say I tested thousands of materials,” she says. “I think some others would have given up.”
Congratulations, Dr. Whitehead!
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (9/23/15)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (10/13/15)