RWTH: Intelligent bioelectronics for the skin and the brain


Professor Francesca Santoro receives this year’s Early Career Award from the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. The materials scientist and engineer for biomedical technology has been researching and teaching at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at RWTH Aachen University and at the Institute for Bioelectronics at Forschungszentrum Jülich since 2022.

With the award, the Leopoldina honors both Santoro’s research contributions in the field of bioelectronics and her work on the development of new materials that can accelerate the healing process of skin and nerve tissue through electrotherapy. The prize, donated by the Commerzbank Foundation and endowed with 30,000 euros, will be presented at the Leopoldina annual meeting on Friday, September 23, 2022 in Halle (Saale).

Francesca Santoro develops bioelectronic materials and investigates their interaction with living cells. In her doctoral thesis, which she completed at the Jülich Research Center, she began investigating the electrical activity of heart muscle and nerve cells, researched techniques for the production of micro- and nanoscale 3D structures and received her doctorate at the RWTH in 2014. In the fall of 2014, the scientist joined Professor Bianxiao Cui’s group at Stanford University, where she studied the interaction of cells with nanostructured materials.

In 2017 she returned to Naples and took over the management of a junior research group at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia there. Building on work from her time at Stanford, she developed a material capable of electrically stimulating injured skin cells to improve healing of damaged tissue. The ultra-thin and skin-friendly electronic materials have photovoltaic properties, which means they capture solar energy and do not require a battery. These wound dressings or plasters can remain on the skin for weeks. The three-dimensional nanostructure improves the interaction between electrodes and cells, so that Santoro’s concept can also be applied to nerve cells.

The researcher is currently working on optimizing the interfaces between nerve tissue and electronic microchips. She has succeeded in creating a so-called biohybrid synapse that can release the neurotransmitter dopamine – a messenger substance that plays an important role in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, among other things. In the future, such biomaterials could be implanted in damaged nerve tissue, for example, and used to successfully treat neurodegenerative diseases.

Francesca Santoro has already received numerous grants and prizes for her research. She received an ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council and was the 2021 recipient of the Falling Walls Science Breakthrough of the Year in Engineering and Technology. In 2018, she was recognized as one of the winners of MIT Technology Review’s annual Innovators Under 35 Europe Awards.

Interstellar Initiative Workshop

This year, Francesca Santoro received another award: participation in an “Interstellar Initiative Mentoring Workshop”, which runs until February 2023. The “Interstellar Initiative” was launched by two of the most important international scientific associations – the New York Academy of Sciences and the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. The aim of the initiative is to support the world’s most promising young scientists in the fields of cancer research, regenerative medicine and neuroscience.

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