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October 09, 2015

She's Brilliant

Whitehead’s Research Will Revolutionize Treatments for Cancer, Diabetes

By Sherry Stokes /

Kathryn WhiteheadKathryn Whitehead has proven that persistence pays off.

The chemical engineering professor was determined to design a nanoparticle that could shuttle therapeutic drugs directly to the cells in the body that need them. In her labor-intensive quest — some have called it unorthodox — she tested thousands of nanoparticles just to identify a select few that had the potential.

The 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.

Her 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.

Her innovative work has earned her a place this year on Popular Science’s Brilliant 10 list. Her research will revolutionize how we treat formidable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and hereditary disorders.

“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.”

Popular Science annually combs through hundreds of nominations from around the country to select the brightest minds in engineering and science. 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.

Not only has her hard work paid off in the discovery of these versatile nanoparticles, 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.

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