CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will receive the 2002 Charles Stark Draper Prize - a $500,000 annual award and gold medallion often referred to as "engineering's Nobel Prize" - for inventing medical drug delivery technologies that prolong lives and ease suffering of millions every year. His contributions are a cornerstone of the controlled drug delivery industry, which is a $20-billion enterprise in the U.S. alone.
Langer, the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, will receive the prize from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Feb. 19.
"Simply put, it gives me great satisfaction to see the things I do make other people happier and healthier," said Langer.
In 1974 Langer, new MIT chemical engineering Ph.D. in hand, had lucrative industrial job offers pouring in. He didn't take any of them. Instead he went to work in the lab of famous cancer researcher Dr. Judah Folkman.
"This job had a profound impact on what I ended up doing with my life," says Langer. "One of the great things about Dr. Folkman was that he believed almost anything was possible, and seeing his example was terrific for me."
The general consensus at that time was that it was impossible to get large molecules, which were promising against cancer and other diseases, through plastic delivery systems in a controlled manner. Langer nevertheless discovered engineering principles that, for the first time, allowed a desired release of such medically important molecules from plastics. Soon thereafter, he excitedly detailed his findings before a distinguished audience of scientists. The response was both skeptical and critical. He was disappointed, but undeterred.
After that, Langer says he had nine straight grant requests rejected, one even questioning how an engineer could do this work when "he knows nothing about biology and even less about oncology." Langer turned disappointment into resolve and, as the pharmaceutical industry took notice, his persistence began improving people's health.
Langer's creative engineering of polymer plastics is now allowing delivery of medicine in unique ways to difficult locations within the human body. One of his biodegradable polymer inventions broke a twenty-year drought in FDA-approved brain cancer treatments. It was the first such chemotherapy that could be delivered directly to the tumor site.
That success is just one of many for Langer. He's written about 700 papers, and 400 patents that are licensed or sub-licensed to more than 80 companies - some launched on his ideas. Langer has a reputation for helping his students take their theses to the marketplace and says he's very proud of the students he has shepherded into professorships - more than 80 at universities around the world - and his undoubted impact on advancing chemical- and bio-engineering education.
"Bob Langer was chosen for the Draper Prize, both for the substance of his contributions and because he is a role model," says NAE President Wm. A. Wulf. "Notable is the large number of companies his students have created, and consequently the effective transfer of technology he has created into the private sector where it becomes available to all of us."
The NAE established the Draper Prize at the request of the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory to honor the "father of inertial navigation." It is awarded for innovative engineering achievement, or a body of work, extending over a period of years. The work must demonstrate a "reduction to practice" - a proven innovation that contributes to human welfare and freedom.
The NAE is an independent, nonprofit institution. Its members consist of the nation's premier engineers, who are elected by their peers for seminal contributions to engineering. The Academy provides leadership and guidance to the nation on the application of engineering resources to vital issues. Established in 1964, the NAE operates under the congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences in 1863.
For additional information about the Draper Prize, visit the NAE Web site.