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.
Langer, 66, leads the 100-strong bioengineering department – the world’s largest – at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I feel so proud and privileged to win the biggest engineering prize in the world,” he said on stage after he was presented with the accolade.
The prize, which the Queen will award to Langer later this year, is a UK initiative that celebrates innovators who have global impact. It was announced by Lord Browne of Madingley, chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation, in the presence of the Duke of York in London on 3 February.
It was the purchasing of a Gilbert chemistry set by his parents that sparked the young Langer’s interest, he told E&T. As an 11-year-old he then set up his own small laboratory in the basement of his house in Albany, New York and eventually went on to earn his Sc.D. in chemical engineering from the MIT in 1974.
Although the obvious career choice for most of his chemical engineering friends was to go into the oil industry, Langer began his biomedical work. “I wanted to use my background to help people,” he said. “I believed in that, but I’m not sure everybody does. Everybody sees things differently and I think that’s okay.”
He took a job as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Judah Folkman, a Harvard scientist developing treatments for cancer that work by cutting off the tumour’s blood supply.
Langer’s first Eureka moment was finding a way to release biological anti-cancer compounds in a controlled way into the patient’s bloodstream. He was then the first person to engineer polymers to control the delivery of large molecular weight drugs for the treatment of diseases such as cancer and mental illness.
His unconventional thinking toppled the traditional view that controlled-release drug delivery would not work for large molecules like proteins, which are sensitive to their surroundings. A general reluctance to embrace biomedical engineering – as occurred in the 1970s – is, Langer said, bound to happen “anytime someone does something that goes against conventional wisdom”.
“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,” Langer said at the press conference following the announcement.
Drug distribution systems existed prior to Langer’s innovation, but it was believed that slow, timed drug releases were limited to small molecules. Langer created a polymer and a system that solved all of the existing challenges.
“He, as an engineer, developed an engineering solution to a medical problem,” Professor Brian Cox said.
He first incorporated biomolecules into the creation of his polymer, designing one that contained water-filled channels that allowed large molecules to travel. By engineering channels such that they wound around in long, precise pathways, Langer controlled the amount of time it took to disperse the large molecules.
Controlled-release drug delivery gives a patient the correct dose over a long period of time; prior to Langer’s innovation this process was too quick and direct, while the paths he created – many, winding trails – took a certain amount of time, allowing for the polymer to break down in a controlled manner.
Langer used engineering principles for human beings, coming up with a new, systematic, and rigorous engineering approach in medical material design.
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,” Lord Broers said.
Langer’s 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 1,000 patents granted or pending for his inventions, he is the most cited engineer in history according to Science.
One of his most recent projects is a microchip-based implant that can store and release precise doses of a drug on-demand or at scheduled intervals for up to 16 years.
“I was watching a television show about how chips were made in the computer industry and I thought that would be a really neat way to make a drug delivery system,” he told E&T.
“The joke that I sometimes make is that if you’ve spent your whole career working on drug-delivery systems you might think that about any television show.”
The E&T podcast: Dr Robert Langer interview
E&T talks to Dr Robert Langer, winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, about his pioneering work in drug-delivery systems that has benefited over 10 million patients worldwide and how unconventional thinking can topple traditional views.