skip to main content

Leal Earns NIH New Innovator Award


Ben Taylor, Engineering Communications Office

Cecilia Leal, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory, is a recipient of the 2016 National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award. The award recognizes bold ideas from some of the nation’s most promising early-career scientists.

The $1.5 million award, given over a period of five years, supports young investigators who have proposed exceptionally creative research ideas that have the potential for unusually high impact in biomedical or behavioral science.

Leal’s work aims to introduce a new paradigm in the field of nanomaterials for medicine by revealing how the nanoparticle structure affects and even dictates their capacity to deliver cargo to cells. 

“One of the most promising engineering contributions to medicine is the development of nanoscale drug capsules that are specifically directed to attack a diseased site while remaining invisible to healthy tissue,” Leal explained. “In the last 10 years, nanomedicine has advanced to the point where scientists can create short RNA sequences that can, in principle, turn off any given gene. But that technology is useless without an efficient delivery vehicle.”

Leal’s research employs unconventional lipid materials and microfluidic devices that enable the sculpting of the interior geometry of lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) and their loading with drugs and short RNAs. These LNPs have tortuous yet highly ordered interiors that may more effectively fuse with endosome walls and deliver the drug and/or nucleic acid cargo to the cell’s cytosol.

Leal joined the Illinois faculty in 2012, and earned the National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2016.