Robert Langer

Engineer, Inventor, Researcher

His Work - Biomedical Applications of Polymers

Robert Langer

Biomedical Applications of Polymers

Langer Inventor, researcher, and biotechnologist Robert Langer could be described as a somewhat futuristic version of Thomas Edison. The Kenneth J. Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering in MIT's chemical engineering department, Langer holds more than 400 patents and has licensed them to some 80 pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology, and medical device companies. He is known all over the world as a pioneer in the field of tissue engineering.

Langer received his bachelor's degree from Cornell University in 1970 and his doctorate from MIT in 1974, both in chemical engineering. He did not set out to change the world, but he was fortunate when, after leaving MIT, he accepted a position to work in the lab of famous cancer researcher Dr. Judah Folkman. Working with Folkman gave Langer the opportunity to study the potential of large molecules to fight cancer and other diseases through plastic delivery systems.

Though skeptics told Langer repeatedly that he lacked the biology and oncology knowledge to carry out his experiments successfully, he persevered. The result was a biodegradable polymer invention that could be placed inside a patient near a cancerous growth, and would deliver regular doses of medication to the cancer site ¹ locally. This process is safer and more effective for the patient than regular chemotherapy. The discovery lead to the development and commercialization of Gliadel, a wafer that has been proven effective in patients with cancer. This and other similar drug delivery systems are now widely used and have helped save thousands of patients' lives.

Langer has since become known as a creative scientist willing to take chances ¹ and have them pay off. Over the last several years his work on tissue engineering and human tissue regeneration has garnered attention both inside and outside the scientific community. His three-dimensional polymer scaffolds have been used by scientists to grow human cells in various configurations. Langer's contention is that with the right structural background, cells of one type of human tissue can be "planted" to grow into functioning, healthy organs -- a liver, or an ear, for example.

More recently Langer has worked on biocompatible shape-memory polymers that would return to predetermined forms once inside a human body. Researchers working with Langer were able to create a mutatable surgical thread that could have useful applications in minimally invasive surgery. The material made of thermoplastic polymers can be designed such that it would assume a thread or string-like shape at room temperature. Once inserted into the body, the body heat would trigger the material's "memory" and cause it to take on a medically useful form, such as a knot, bone screw, or stent.

Langer has also worked on magnetically controlled drug-release implants and transdermal ultrasound drug delivery. He has been working on creating a biodegradable rubber, constructing synthetic viruses for gene delivery, and research related to gene therapy. Meanwhile, he encourages his students to think just as creatively as he does and often helps them commercialize their own discoveries. He has guided more than 70 of his students into professorships at universities worldwide.

In addition to his patents and companies, Langer has written 700 articles and 430 abstracts. He has also been honored for his work with more than 80 major awards, including the 1998 Lemelson-MIT Prize. He is the only engineer to have received the 1996 Gairdner Foundation International Award (56 recipients of this award have subsequently received a Nobel Prize,) and in 2002 he won the Charles Stark Draper Prize. In 1989, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine, and in 1992 he was elected to both the National Academy of Engineering and to the National Academy of Sciences. He is also chairman of the United States Food and Drug Administration's Science Board and a cofounder of Mimeon in Waltham, Mass., a company focused on glynomics, or the study of carbohydrates used for drug discovery.