When artificial hearts were invented, physicians searching for a stretchy, pliant material settled on a woman's girdle.
Years later, polyetherurethane is still used in artificial hearts. Robert Langer, the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, thinks bioengineers should be able to come up with better strategies for creating materials better suited for use inside the human body. "Rather than use off-the-shelf objects, I thought we should figure out what we really want in a biomaterial from an engineering, chemistry and biology standpoint and then synthesize it," he said.
Professor Langer, the featured speaker at the MIT Enterprise Forum, Inc., satellite broadcast on May 21 from Kresge Auditorium, offered his perspective on how this kind of aggressive new approach to biomedical materials has formed the basis for new life-giving medical treatments. His talk was entitled "Creating and Implementing Breakthrough Technology."
"I think we live in a remarkable time when advances are growing at such a rapid rate," said Professor Langer, who, with 320 patents under his belt, is an entrepreneurial as well as a research success story.
The MIT Enterprise Forum is a nonprofit organization of 10,000 members and attendees that provides information and other services to new technology companies. The satellite broadcast series extends MIT's relationship to alumni/ae and friends. This is the fourth satellite broadcast, which reached forum chapters, MIT alumni/ae clubs and Sloan School clubs in Ohio, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, Washington, DC, and Canada. It will also be rebroadcast in San Francisco.
Professor Langer has applied polymer chemistry to drug-delivery systems that keep drugs in an optimal range in the body while minimizing side effects, and to developing erodible polymers that offer hope of a longer and more comfortable life to patients with brain tumors. He also has made important contributions to tissue engineering by fusing human cells with synthetic polymers that together can function as human cartilage, skin or other biological structures.
When Professor Langer wanted to synthesize a material that would allow a drug to slowly dissipate in the body the way a bar of soap dissolves, he did an engineering analysis and came up with a class of material akin to polyester known as polyanhydrides.
He tracked down a single researcher from a Japanese clothing company who had written a research article on the use of these polymers as fabric in 1959. When the Japanese scientist and his colleagues said that the material was a dismal failure for clothing because it dissolved in the rain or the wash, Langer knew he had found the right stuff.
Polyanhydrides became the basis for the first new treatment approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for brain cancer in more than 20 years. This brain cancer procedure, which involves placing a slow-dissolving disk of tumor-fighting drugs directly in the tumor, saves the liver, kidney and spleen from damage by the potent drug. Systems based in part on Professor Langer's research are also being used to treat patients with advanced prostate cancer, endometriosis and other diseases.
Besides pioneering the use of polymers as drug-delivery vehicles, Professor Langer discovered that polymeric systems could be used for tissue engineering. By fusing mammalian cells with synthetic polymers, Professor Langer, Jay Vacanti, head of surgical transplanation at Boston Children's Hospital, and their colleagues, including former Langer postdoc Linda Griffith (now the Karl Van Tassel Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering), have created skin, cartilage, tendons, bone and nerves, and they have even formed a tube lined with working intestinal cells in animal models. Artificial skin made with this method is now approved by the FDA. An artificial liver also is being studied.
These successes did not come easily; Professor Langer said they entailed years of work in the laboratory, additional years of convincing the research community that the approach was feasible, and then continued struggles with the US Patent Office and companies who licensed the patents to bring the inventions to market for patients.
In the broadcast's opening remarks, Lita Nelsen, director of the Technology Licensing Office, said Professor Langer generates so many patents that it would take the staff of an average-sized university patent office to handle his work alone.
Ms. Nelsen said one of the attributes that set Professor Langer apart is his willingness to work hard on the licensing process, which can be extremely frustrating and time-consuming. "He says, 'I want every one of my inventions to get used to help people,'" she said. "He doesn't see this as an interruption of his academic work."
When the development of his brain cancer treatment ground to a halt because the company was acquired by a new firm that couldn't finance the process, he worked hard with Ms. Nelsen to relicense the patent to another company. She said she is impressed with the perserverence of entrepreneurs. "They keep going even when their mothers tell them they're crazy," she said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 1998.