Robert Langer could have done like many of his fellow chemical engineering graduate students in 1974 and taken a job with a big petroleum company. But a career in the oil industry wasn’t for him.
“I really just was not excited about those jobs,” Langer says. “My interest was in trying to do something that would improve people’s lives and health.”
Instead, he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship with cancer researcher Judah Folkman in the surgery department at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School. “I was the only engineer in the hospital at the time, and that just gave me so many ideas about how I could apply engineering to medicine,” Langer says.
So began the career of perhaps the most influential person working in biotechnology today. Langer’s work has continued to bridge the gap between engineering and medicine, leading to groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in fields including drug delivery, tissue engineering, nanotechnology, and personalized medicine.
Langer grew up in Albany, NY, and earned a bachelor’s from Cornell University and a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both in chemical engineering. He returned to MIT as an assistant professor in 1977 and has been there ever since. In 2005 he was named Institute Professor, the highest honor that can be given to an MIT faculty member. Currently the David H. Koch Institute Professor, Langer also leads the institute’s Langer Lab, one of the largest biomedical engineering laboratories in the world, where researchers study and develop polymers for drug delivery.
One of Langer’s early contributions in drug delivery involved changing the structure of biocompatible polymers to deliver molecules of nearly any size or charge. He also helped pioneer the use of 3-D polymer scaffolds to create new tissues and organs, and helped create long-circulating nanoparticles that can target specific cells in the body, remote-controlled drug-delivery microchips, and smart polymers that can change shape when exposed to temperature or light.
Langer has more than 800 pending and issued patents, which have been licensed to hundreds of companies, including medical device makers. He has also helped launch at least 27 companies based on his inventions. The most cited engineer ever, Langer has written more than 1200 articles and has received 20 honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning around the world. He served as chairman of FDA’s highest advisory board and was the youngest person ever elected to all three U.S. National Academies. Langer has been honored with more than 220 major awards, including the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Next month he’ll add yet another accolade to the list: the 2013 MDEA Lifetime Achievement Award. Now in its third year, the Lifetime Acheivement Award was given to inventor Thomas Fogarty in 2012 and Alfred Mann, CEO of MannKind Corp., in 2011.
"I'm tremendously honored to receive this award—all the more so because of the previous recipients," Langer says.
Despite all his accomplishments, Langer says he is most proud of his work in helping to foster the next generation of biotech innovators. More than 200 or his former students have gone on to be professors at top universities, and hundreds more are working in the industry—some as CEOs and presidents at major companies—he says.
“I’m very proud of how well all the people who have trained with me have done, by and large,” Langer says.
Langer will receive the MDEA Lifetime Achievement Award in a special ceremony at MD&M East in Philadelphia on June 19, 2013.
Jamie Hartford is the managing editor of MD+DI.