A pioneering biomedical engineer at MIT, Robert S. Langer Jr., has won a 1996 Gairdner Foundation International Award in recognition of his "outstanding contributions to medical science."
Professor Langer, the first engineer to win a Gairdner Award, was recognized for developing revolutionary methods for the slow release of drugs to patients.
"These delivery methods use synthetic polymers that allow controlled drug release," the citation said. "Dr. Langer's seminal contributions include the discovery of how biocompatible polymers could be used to slowly deliver macromolecules such as peptides and proteins, and the synthesis of novel degradable polymers for controlled release.
"His work has revolutionized the way that vaccines and drugs are administered to patients in a variety of diseases, including cancer, and has resulted in new therapeutic modalities," the citation concluded.
The announcement was made last week in Toronto. The foundation's headquarters are in nearby Willowdale. Four others also were named to receive Gairdner Awards.
Established in 1957, the Gairdner Foundation has honored 243 scientists, 46 of whom subsequently won a Nobel Prize.
Previous winners at MIT include Robert Weinberg (1992) and Nobel Laureates Phillip Sharp (1986), Susumu Tonegawa (1983), H. Gobind Khorana (1980) and David Baltimore (1974).
Dr. Langer, the Kenneth J. Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering, pioneered the field of controlled release systems for peptides, proteins and other macromolecules. He has made seminal contributions in the areas of biomaterials, immobilized enzymes and angiogenesis inhibitors.
Beginning in 1980, a group led by Dr. Langer began to change the way biomaterials were developed for medicine. Previously, almost all materials used in medicine were off-the-shelf materials that had been designed for other purposes. They were used because they resembled the organs they were intended to fix. For example, the artificial heart was made from material designed for women's girdles because a good flex-life was needed. Professor Langer and his colleagues took a new approach, asking what was wanted in a biomaterial from engineering, chemical and biological standpoints, then synthesizing polymers that had the necessary characteristics. An early example, in 1980, was a polymer that would surface-erode, like a bar of soap, providing a very steady controlled release of medication. The Langer group achieved this by synthesizing a new family of polymers: polyanhydries. The next step was developing ways for drugs to be released slowly from these polymers. Ultimately, release could take place from one day to six years, depending on how the material was constructed.
In 1985, Professor Langer and Dr. Henry Brem, a Johns Hopkins Medical School neurosurgeon, began a collaboration which has led to a new method for delivering a chemotherapeutic drug directly at the site of a brain cancer. A small wafer carrying the drug is placed in the skull after tumor-removal surgery. The drug is released slowly as the wafer dissolves. This method has proven highly successful in improving survival. After a number of years of research and clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved the treatment, which now is available throughout the country. The wafers are made by Guilford Pharmaceuticals of Baltimore under a license from MIT.
Professor Langer received the bachelor's degree from Cornell University (1970) and the PhD from MIT (1974), both in chemical engineering. He has been a member of the Institute of Medicine since 1989. In 1992 he was elected to both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences. In 1994, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Professor Langer is the only active member of all three United States National Academies.
Others named to receive 1996 Gairdner Awards were Dr. Barry J. Marshall of the University of Virginia for work on the cause and treatment of peptic ulcers; Dr. James E. Rothman, vice chairman of the Sloan-Kettering Institute, and Dr. Randy W. Schekman of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, for independent work on understanding how cells manufacture proteins, and Dr. Janet D. Rowley of the University of Chicago for work showing that chromosome rearrangement is a specific cause of cancer.
Each award recipient will receive $30,000 at a presentation ceremony next October in Toronto.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 24, 1996.