News Release

Smart bioelectronics for the skin and the brain: Materials scientist Francesca Santoro receives the Leopoldina Early Career Award 2022

Grant and Award Announcement


The Leopoldina Early Career Award 2022, donated by the Commerzbank Foundation and valued at 30,000 euros, has been awarded to materials scientist and biomedical engineer Prof. Dr. Francesca Santoro. With this prize, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina acknowledges both her research contributions in the bioelectronics field and her work to develop new materials capable of interacting with the skin and the brain – a comprehensive accomplishment from basic research to application in the biomedical field. The prize will be awarded during the Leopoldina Annual Assembly on Friday, 23 September 2022 in Halle (Saale). 

Francesca Santoro develops bioelectronic materials and investigates their interaction with living cells. During her PhD, she began investigating the electrical activity of heart muscle and nerve cells and researching techniques to manufacture micro- and nanoscale 3D structures. Building on this work, during her time at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italy), she went on to develop a material capable of electrically stimulating injured skin cells to improve the healing of damaged tissue. The ultra-thin and skin compatible electronic materials have photovoltaic properties and therefore 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 allows Santoro’s concept to be applied to nerve cells as well.  

Santoro’s current research is on optimising interfaces between nervous tissue and electronic microchips to ultimately create biohybrid neuronal cells. This work has led her to successfully produce a so-called biohybrid synapse capable of releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine – a messenger substance which, among other things, plays a vital role in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. In future, such biomaterials could be used for a more successful treatment of neurodegenerative disease. For example, they could be implanted in damaged nervous tissue. 

Francesca Santoro (born in 1986) studied biomedical engineering at the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II in Naples, Italy. After her Master’s degree, she moved to Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) Aachen University, Germany and the Forschungszentrum Jülich research centre, where she was awarded a PhD in 2014. From 2014 to 2017, she continued her research work as a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University, USA. Santoro has led her own research groups since 2017, first at the Centre of Advanced Biomaterials for Healthcare (CABHC) at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Naples, Italy. Since the beginning of 2022, she has been based at both the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at RWTH Aachen and the Institute of Biological Information Processing at Forschungszentrum Jülich. She has already been awarded numerous grants and awards for her research. She received an ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council and she was the 2021 awardee of the Falling Walls Science Breakthrough of the Year in Engineering and Technology. In 2018, she was recognised as one of the winners of the annual Innovators Under 35 Europe awards from MIT Technology Review.  

The Commerzbank Foundation’s Leopoldina Early Career Award has been presented at the Leopoldina Annual Assembly every two years since 2010 and acknowledges scientists who have achieved outstanding work in the field honoured by the motto of that year’s Annual Assembly. Scientific works up to 10 years following a PhD are regarded as Early Career achievements. The prize is valued at 30,000 euros, which is donated by the Commerzbank Foundation. 

The prize will be awarded during the Leopoldina Annual Assembly on Friday, 23 September 2022 in Halle (Saale). This year, the event is dedicated to the topic of "Global Health: From Health Services to Climate Change and to Social Justice".  

Further Information about the Leopoldina Early Career Award and previous prize winners:  

About the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina: 
As the German National Academy of Sciences, the Leopoldina provides independent science-based policy advice on matters relevant to society. To this end, the Academy develops interdisciplinary statements based on scientific findings. In these publications, options for action are outlined; making decisions, however, is the responsibility of democratically legitimized politicians. The experts who prepare the statements work in a voluntary and unbiased manner. The Leopoldina represents the German scientific community in the international academy dialogue. This includes advising the annual summits of heads of state and government of the G7 and G20 countries. With 1,600 members from more than 30 countries, the Leopoldina combines expertise from almost all research areas. Founded in 1652, it was appointed the National Academy of Sciences of Germany in 2008. The Leopoldina is committed to the common good.  

The Leopoldina on Twitter: 

About the Commerzbank Foundation 
For more than 50 years, the Commerzbank Foundation has been supporting projects in the areas of culture, social affairs and science nationwide with the aim of assuming responsibility towards fellow human beings and making a lasting contribution to a sustainable society. As an actively supporting foundation it works with experienced partners whose initiatives have a nationwide impact. A major concern of the Commerzbank Foundation is to enable social participation and strengthen cultural education. Further information about the Commerzbank Foundation can be found here:  

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