Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Biomedical Applications of Polymers
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
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
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.