Carnegie Mellon University
September 24, 2015

Unorthodox Approach to Drug Delivery Research Lands CMU Professor on Popular Science's 2015 Brilliant 10 List

By Sherry Stokes / 412-268-5976 /

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

Kathryn Whitehead

Kathryn Whitehead (left) and her research group are using nanoparticles to engineer new treatments for diseases.

Annually, Popular Science combs through hundreds of nominations from around the country to select the brightest minds in engineering and science. Whitehead earned the honor this year 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, 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, 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. 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,” 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.”

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,” 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.

“The Popular Science Brilliant 10 award acknowledges the power of Katie’s ideas and the important contributions that faculty members can make early in their careers,” said James H. Garrett, dean of CMU's College of Engineering.

“I’m here at Carnegie Mellon because I want to use my creativity and scientific skills for the betterment of society,” said Whitehead. “Knowing that our work could improve the lives of millions of patients is deeply satisfying.”