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Langer wins Killian faculty award

Robert S. Langer, the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, was awarded the 26th Killian Faculty Achievement Prize at the May 21 faculty meeting.

Alice H. Amsden, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Political Economy and chair of the Killian Faculty Award Committee, announced the Killian Committee's decision in a lively presentation.

Noting the Killian award's exacting requirements, Professor Amsden said, "The winner must be brilliant, a genius--someone who has pushed the world technological frontier forward, who is innovative, creative and whose ideas have influenced other people. Also, the winner must be a person who is articulate, in order to deliver the Killian Lecture. We don't want a mumbler who faces the blackboard," she added, giving a humorous demonstration of un-prizeworthy technique at the blackboard in Rm 10-250.

Professor Langer told his assembled colleagues, "I'm flattered and humbled. I'm very grateful to follow in my predecessors' footsteps, thanks to remarklable students and postdocs, to two great departments behind me, to teaching with terrific people. And thanks to my wife, Laura, for her love and support."


The Killian Committee Report, read aloud by Professor Amsden, said in part, "Using his background in polymer science, which he learned largely here at MIT, Bob Langer has become the leader in applying polymer chemistry to several distinct areas in the discipline of pharmacology. Bob has been the leader in the development of polymeric drug delivery systems that allow humans to receive drugs in a physiologically normal manner.

"Langer's approach was so well grounded in basic science that he could program drug-delivery systems for specific purposes. When the molecular biology revolution brought chemically labile protein therapeutics to the marketplace, Bob was able to program delivery systems that could efficiently and safely bring these new and much-needed therapeutics to the public.

"Langer also pioneered the use of erodible polymers as drug delivery tools. Again, the solid foundation of basic science upon which his technologies is based has allowed him to program the release rates of drugs over an incredible four orders of magnitude. This work has impacted cancer chemotherapy in that Langer's polymer inserts with bischloroethylnitrosolurea now offer hope of a longer and more comfortable life to patients with surgically inoperable brain tumors.

"More recently, Langer has made important contributions to the field of tissue engineering by fusing human cells with synthetic polymers that, in aggregate, can function as human skin and as other biological structures.

"Langer's work has impacted a remarkably broad range of medical biotechnology including anticancer therapy, vaccine development, gene therapy and tissue engineering."


In honoring Professor Langer's personal contributions to the MIT community and to the larger world, Professor Amsden noted, "Bob Langer may be unique in being an active member simultaneously of the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. He holds 265 patents, has edited 12 books and has published 512 articles. He has also won over 50 awards--but I won't discuss these as some may be highly competitive with the Killian award.

"For someone who surely must work all the time to achieve all this, Bob Langer is an extremely popular person, and letters on his behalf describe a character that is warm, sharing, kind, generous and inspiring."

The Killian Committee announcement cited letters of support from colleagues.

"Whenever I travel overseas, I meet scores of people who consider themselves `Bob's best friend'--can one person have so many best friends?" wrote Professor Elazer Edelman, one of Professor Langer's first graduate students. "And everyone calls Langer by his first name, which is common for a premier athlete but not for a world-renowned scientist."

Professor Amsden continued, "Four of Bob's letters in support of his nomination mention that he makes it a point to answer all telephone calls the day he receives them--no matter if he is in Japan or Sweden, and no matter if the time is two o'clock in the morning.

"As for mentoring, 50 of his former students are already professors in major universities throughout the world. The high road Langer has taken is suggested by Linda Griffith, associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT. She wrote, `Bob is incredibly busy, but he rarely acts hurried when interacting with his junior colleagues, and he never ends a meeting until whatever problem being discussed is resolved. This style is perhaps what leads Bob to be so incredibly successful in mentoring women. Many of the leading women in the field, both in academia and industry, have been students or postdocs with Bob.'"

Closing her presentation, Professor Amsden speculated aloud, "Perhaps Bob Langer deserves two Killian Awards!"

Other members of the Killian Selection Committee were Professors Kenneth Hale of linguistics, Chiang Mei of civil engineering, Mary-Lou Pardue of biology and William Pounds of the Sloan School. Professors Alexander Klibanov and Charles Cooney nominated Professor Langer for the award.

Commented Provost Joel Moses, "It's always nice to be first and beat the Nobel Prize Committee."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 4, 1997.

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