A liking for lipids, an area of study scorned by other scientists

Wonhwa Cho (F)

Wonhwa Cho: “I’m hoping that in the next two to three years we can make a big, big impact. You’re going to hear from us.” Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services


The Researcher of the Year Award recognizes 10 UIC scientists who are advancing knowledge in their fields. The Distinguished Researcher Award honors five researchers with a record of outstanding achievement. The Rising Star Award honors early-career researchers who show promise as future leaders. 

Wonhwa Cho 
Distinguished Researcher 

Lipids are often considered boring, even by other scientists. Not Wonhwa Cho, distinguished professor of chemistry.

Lipids form the cell membrane that acts as a barrier between the cell and the surrounding environment. Until recently, researchers believed this was their only purpose.  “We discovered that cholesterol (a lipid) can regulate cellular function, which nobody had suspected,” Cho says.

Last year, researchers in Cho’s lab showed that cholesterol acts as an important switch in a signaling pathway in the cell that affects the cell’s ability to divide. When this pathway is overactive it’s known to cause certain cancers.

One reason lipids have been overlooked in biology is that “they are a very nasty molecule to work with,” Cho says, because they can’t be dissolved in water like most organic molecules.  “In order to understand how lipids work, you have to understand how they behave and their chemical behaviors,” he says.

Cho pioneered new techniques to study lipids, such as a fluorescent sensor to count lipids in live cells. His team is seeking compounds that modulate lipids’ regulatory functions.

Cho’s work could help in the development of new drugs for cancer and other diseases. “Pharmaceutical companies, as successful as they have been so far, are running out of new drug candidates,” Cho says. “Lipids have never been explored as a drug target.”

While he has seen many trends in science throughout the years, Cho said he believes it’s important to stick with one research area to make a major contribution there. “Eventually you can actually create a new field,” he says. “That’s what I am hoping to accomplish.”

Cho received a master’s degree in chemistry at Seoul National University in South Korea before coming to Chicago for his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He has spent nearly half his life in Chicago, joining UIC in 1990 after a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology.

Cho’s enthusiasm for lipids shows no sign of slowing. “I’m hoping that in the next two to three years we can make a big, big impact,” he says. “You’re going to hear from us.”

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