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Biomedical applications of polymers


Robert Langer, the sole or co-holder of 320 patents, is one of history's most prolific inventors in biochemistry and medicine.

Born in Albany, New York, Langer began experimenting in chemistry as a young boy. He went on to earn a B.S. at Cornell University (1970) and a Sc.D. at MIT (1974), both in Chemical Engineering. Since the mid-70s, Langer has done research at Boston's Children's Hospital Medical Center, in addition to research and teaching at MIT, where he is Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering.

Langer's most fruitful contributions have come from his research in synthetic polymers: compounds formed from strings of molecules in repeated units.

In the field of controlled drug delivery, Langer invented systems that use biodegradable polymers. These are implanted in the body and then dissolve, as they release drugs directly into the surrounding tissue. For example, Langer and Dr. Henry Brem of Johns Hopkins University Medical School designed polymer wafers that are implanted in the brain to fight cancer with direct chemotherapy. Langer's system was found to be five times more successful in preserving the lives of victims of brain cancer than traditional methods of treatment, with much less severe side-effects.

In the field of tissue engineering, Langer invented methods of using polymers as a base upon which to grow cells for replacement tissues or organs, including skin, cartilage and bone. For example, Langer and Dr. Jay Vacanti developed a system for "seeding" polymers with natural skin cells and then transplanting the resultant hybrid skin to burn victims.

Robert Langer has pioneered industries that improve and extend the lives of innumerable persons, many of whom would have no hope otherwise. Last week, in honor of his tremendous achievements as an American inventor, academic and scientist, Langer was awarded the 1998 Lemelson-MIT Prize---at $500,000, the world's greatest single cash prize for invention.

[April 1998]

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