Robert S. Langer, the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, author of 550 research papers, editor of 12 books, inventor on 320 patents and a pioneer in biomedical and chemical engineering, today was named the winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for 1998, the world's single largest cash prize for American invention and innovation.
Professor Langer is the first MIT-affiliated recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Prize, which annually honors Americans who demonstrate excellence in medicine and health care; energy and environment; telecommunications and computing; or consumer products, durable goods and industrial products.
This is the second time discoveries in biomedical sciences have been honored by the award. In 1996, Stanley Cohen of Stanford and Herbert Boyer of the University of California at San Francisco were honored for bolstering the foundation of genetic engineering.
Professor Langer, whose discoveries are at the heart of the emerging technology of tissue engineering and the multibillion-dollar controlled-drug-delivery industry, was named the winner in New York after an intensive, year-long process by the Lemelson-MIT Awards Program and three review panels of leading experts -- independent of MIT -- from a range of scientific, engineering and medical disciplines in academia and industry.
The Lemelson Awards Program also announced that Jacob Rabinow is this year's recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award for a distinguished career in innovation.
During 80 years of inventing, Mr. Rabinow of Bethesda, MD, has earned 229 patents for military, industrial, computer and electrical devices. His research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was important in the development of the proximity fuse and safety mechanisms for missiles. His technological firsts include the optical character recognition machine to use the "best match" principle to read broken or defaced characters, and storing computer memory on magnetic discs instead of tapes (the "notched disc" magnetic memory machine).
Both winners will receive an interactive trophy designed for the program by kinetic sculptor Arthur Ganson. Professor Langer and Mr. Rabinow will be honored tomorrow evening at a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
"These winners represent American ingenuity at its best," said Professor Lester C. Thurow, economist, author and chairman of the Lemelson-MIT Prize Board. "Their passion and interest in invention has dramatically saved and improved lives while advancing numerous industries."
"It gives me great satisfaction to know that the research that my laboratory has done has led to improvements in people's lives, and has given hope to patients in cases where there had been very little hope before," Professor Lan-ger said. "Inventions can and have helped people in major ways and have changed the world. A lot of times conventional wisdom would dictate that your idea, or your invention,is not possible. It is important to realize that there is very little that is truly impossible."
A LIFETIME OF DISCOVERY
Years after receiving a Gilbert chemistry set as a boy, Professor Langer is still committed to learning and discovering in chemistry. The only active member of all three US National Academies -- sciences, engineering and medicine -- Professor Langer's groundbreaking research in polymers dispelled the belief that only some sizes of molecules could be slowly delivered. His discoveries led to the first approaches to the slow release of ionic drugs, peptides and other large molecules such as proteins and DNA.
As a biomedical engineer whose major focus is biomaterials, Professor Langer specializes in controlled drug delivery and tissue engineering. His groundbreaking research in the development of new systems for controlled delivery of pharmaceuticals, specifically his work with polymers, has led to a variety of novel drug delivery systems, including a treatment for brain cancer developed with Dr. Henry Brem of Johns Hopkins University Medical School.
This is the first FDA-approved treatment for brain cancer in 20 years and the first polymer-based treatment to deliver chemotherapy directly to the tumor site.
A pioneer in the field of tissue engineering, Professor Langer discovered, with surgeon Jay Vacanti, that synthetic polymers could be seeded with mammalian cells to produce replacement tissue or organs. These discoveries formed a basis for creating new tissues such as artificial skin for burn victims, or cartilage and other tissue for patients suffering from tissue loss or organ failure. Tissue loss and organ failure cost the nation more than $500 billion in health care costs in 1997.
"Professor Langer's breadth of activities are quite impressive. He has taken his own basic scientific work and created an incredible range of practical applications, such as artificial skin, bone and cartilage, and implantable drug delivery systems, from which society will clearly benefit," said Dr. William M. Cummings, manager of international fuels issues for Texaco and one of the reviewers of this year's prize nominations.
Professor Langer's research has been applied in areas including vaccines, diagnostics, innovative waste disposal technologies, novel therapeutics and tissue repair. In 1997, sales of advanced drug delivery systems in the United States were approximately $14 billion.
Professor Langer earned the BS (with distinction) in chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1970 and the ScD in chemical engineering from MIT in 1974. He has been teaching and doing research at MIT since 1977.
In the mid-1970s, Professor Langer began his research into polymers. His numerous breakthroughs have earned him more than 60 national and international awards and honors. He is the only engineer to receive the Gairdner Foundation International Award (49 previous winners subsequently won a Nobel Prize) for discoveries that led to the development of slow drug-release systems, as well as the William Walker Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Wiley Medal from the US Food and Drug Administration.
INVENTIONS FOR DAILY LIFE
A prolific inventor, Mr. Rabinow's range of achievements include ordnance, sound reproduction, photography, computer technology, mechanical devices, optical products, electronic systems, horology (clocks and watches), mail sorters, reading machines and automobiledevices.
His leading inventions are the automatic letter-sorting machine used by the US Postal Service, the automatic regulation of clocks and watches (formerly used in all American automobiles made from 1954-74), the magnetic particle clutch used in cars and airplanes, card punches and card sorting machines, and the straight-line phonograph, manufactured by Harmon Kardon Corp., Sony and Bang & Olufsen, among others.
Born in 1910 in Kharkov, Russia, Mr. Rabinow's lifelong interest in inventing was inspired by machinery in his father's shoe factory and stimulated by the literary works of Jules Verne. He and his family emigrated to China and later to Brooklyn, NY, in 1921. He earned a BS in engineering in 1933 and a graduate degree in electrical engineering in 1934 from City College of New York.
An inventor since he was eight, Mr. Rabinow applied for his first patent in 1948 and his most recent patent in the spring of 1998.
In 1938, Mr. Rabinow began his career at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), then known as the National Bureau of Standards. He left in 1954 to create the Rabinow Engineering Co., which performed technical and engineering consulting services for many industrial organizations and the federal government. The company was later acquired by Control Data Corp., where he served as vice president.
In 1968, he established the RABCO Co. to manufacture his straight-line phonographs. Mr. Rabinow rejoined the NIST in 1972 and served as the chief research engineer of the National Engineering Laboratory until his retirement in 1989, though he still lectures and works as a NIST consultant.
Models of his inventions will be displayed at a new museum at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Other models are housed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
"I invent because it is fun and I enjoy the challenge," Mr. Rabinow said. "Invention is an art form and should be supported as such. It's most important for young people to find the work they love, and inventors love what they do. As a nation, we should encourage invention by motivating potential inventors with programs such as the Lemelson-MIT Awards."
"Professor Langer's and Mr. Rabinow's achievements have transformed and enriched our daily lives, while serving as an inspiration to young inventors," said Dorothy Lemelson, co-founder of the Lemelson Foundation. "Their contributions in invention and in the businesses that have benefited from them exemplify the ideals of the Lemelson Foundation and the Lemelson-MIT Awards Program."
The late independent inventor, Jerome H. Lemelson (1923-97), and his wife Dorothy established the Lemelson-MIT Awards Program at MIT in 1994 to promote positive role models for young people and for all aspiring inventors.
The program is administered by MIT, which leads the nation in number of patents awarded to a single university, on behalf of the Lemelson National Program.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 15, 1998.