At an award ceremony at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna on October 19, Northwestern University’s Chad A. Mirkin was conferred a prestigious 2017 Wilhelm Exner Medal. He and CERN Director-General and particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti were each honored with a medal at the ceremony.
The award is in acknowledgment of Mirkin’s invention of spherical nucleic acids (SNAs), which are used in extracellular and intracellular molecular diagnostics, gene regulation, materials engineering, and immune modulation. They form the foundation for over 1,600 commercial products, including three drugs that are in human clinical trials.
Mirkin joins an eminent list of laureates that includes 21 Nobel Prize winners and scientific luminaries, such as Lord Ernest Rutherford, known as the father of nuclear physics; Stefan Hell, a 2016 Nobel laureate who pioneered super-resolved fluorescence microscopy; and Charles H. Townes, inventor of the laser. Since 1921, the medal has been awarded by the Austrian Industry Association, Österreichischer Gewerbeverein (ÖGV) to inventors and scientists whose work has paved the way for new possibilities in industrial applications.
“Any time one’s work is recognized with one of another country’s highest scientific honors, it is an extraordinary acknowledgment and validation of a life’s pursuit,”
Chad A. Mirkin, The George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry and director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern.
Mirkin is known internationally for his invention of SNAs and the development of chemical and biological diagnostic and therapeutic systems based upon them. He is the world’s top-cited researcher in nanomedicine and one of the most extensively cited chemists.
SNAs are structures containing spherical nanoparticles densely covered with DNA or RNA - the genetic blueprints of living organisms. Like rays radiating from the sun, the RNA or DNA strands hang from a common center; the resulting 3D structure gives SNAs physical and chemical properties that are drastically different from linear nucleic acids, the chief structure found in nature.
Mirkin also is the inventor and chief developer of a number of pioneering nanoscale fabrication and analytical tools, including Polymer Pen Lithography, Dip-Pen Nanolithography, and Beam-Pen Lithography. He is the co-founder of a number of companies, such as Nanosphere (acquired by Luminex), AuraSense, Exicure and TERA-print, aimed at transitioning progresses in nanotechnology to the biomedical, life science, and semiconductor industries.
Mirkin is a main force behind Northwestern’s position as a world leader in nanoscience. In 2000, he founded Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) and has developed this organization from the ground up. The institute presently represents over $800 million in educational programs, nanotechnology research, and supporting infrastructure. The work reaches into practically every industry, including energy, health, security and defense, electronics, and the environment.
Mirkin also is a professor of medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and professor of chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Mirkin is one of very few engineers, scientists, and medical doctors to be elected to all three branches of the U.S. National Academies - the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Medicine.