Turkish Republic honors UIC researcher with science prize

Hayat Onyuksel receives "The Special Prize" award from the Turkish Republic

Hayat Onyuksel receives “The Special Prize” award from the president of the Turkish Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Hayat Onyuksel has been gone from Turkey for more than 30 years, but she has not been forgotten.

Onyuksel, professor of pharmaceutics and bioengineering in the College of Pharmacy’s department of biopharmaceutical sciences, was recently awarded “The Special Prize” by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey.

The award is given to Turkish citizen scientists living outside the country who have made significant international contributions. She was one of two Americans to receive the honor, bestowed by the president of the Turkish Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the newly built presidential palace in the capital city of Ankara.

“This award means a great deal to me,” says Onyuksel, a UIC researcher for nearly 30 years. “It is the most prestigious recognition that a scientist receives in Turkey.”

Onyuksel was serving on the faculty at Ankara University when she came to UIC in 1985 for a temporary research project. When the project ended, she made the difficult decision to leave her family behind in Turkey and remain in the United States. She felt she could not perform the research she was doing at UIC in her native land.

The award confirmed “that my sacrifices and hard work was all worth it,” she says.

“I am humbled to see that the country in which I was born and raised still remembers me and appreciates my work,” she says. “I believe that I have contributed to science and Turkey more by doing research in the United States.

“If not for my outstanding collaborators and graduate students, I would not be able to make the contributions in science that I do. I am very grateful to them.”

Onyuksel received the award for her research on targeted drug delivery in cancer. She uses lipid-based nanocarriers containing drugs that can circulate in the bloodstream for several hours without releasing the contents. Because blood vessels in cancers are naturally “leaky,” the nanocarrier escapes from the bloodstream into the cancerous tissue and releases the drug directly at the site of the tumor, with minimal harm to normal healthy cells.

Her work has shown that this kind of innovative treatment can significantly improve drug activity and minimize side effects.

“Hayat’s work is at the forefront of delivery science,” said William Beck, Onyuksel’s colleague and head of the department of biopharmaceutical sciences. “It has clinical implications in terms of targeted delivery of drugs, with lower toxicities, to treat cancers as well as other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. My colleagues and I could not be happier for Hayat to receive this outstanding award in recognition of her many scientific accomplishments.”