Drug-delivery pioneer wins top engineering prize

Robert Langer, a biomedical engineer known for his pioneering work in drug-delivery systems, tissue building and microchip implants, has won the £1m Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

Professor Langer, 66, leads the world’s largest academic biomedical engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I feel so proud and privileged to win the biggest engineering prize in the world,” he said.

The prize, which the Queen will present to Professor Langer later this year, is a UK initiative that celebrates innovators with global impact and has been referred to as the 'Nobel' for engineering.

With a background in chemical engineering, Professor Langer began biomedical work in 1974 and refused to go into the oil industry – the obvious career choice for most of his chemical engineering friends. “I wanted to use my background to help people,” he said.

His first success was finding a way to release biological anti-cancer compounds in a controlled way into the patient’s bloodstream. He then engineered biodegradable polymers that could absorb the large molecules required for cancer treatment and then release them slowly.

Talking about his initial work in drug-delivery during the 70's, Professor Langer said he encountered an enormous amount of scepticism.

“I got my first nine research grants turned down. It took a number of years before we fully understood the mechanism and before it became widely used. I suppose science often happens like that,” said Professor Langer during the press conference.

His work is the basis for long-lasting treatments for brain cancer, prostate cancer, endometriosis, schizophrenia, diabetes, and the drug-coated cardiovascular stents that have benefited more than 10 million patients.

With over 1000 patents granted or pending for his inventions, he is the most cited engineer in history according to Science.

Lord Broers, chair of the QE Prize judges, explained that they decided to honour Professor Langer for “his immense contribution to healthcare and to numerous other fields by applying engineering systems thinking to biochemical problems”.

“Not only has he revolutionised drug delivery but his open-minded approach to innovation and his ability to think outside the box have led to great advances in the field of tissue engineering,” said Lord Broers.

The previous winners of the prize in 2013 were the five pioneers of the Internet and World Wide Web including Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

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