Robert Langer has received 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 of people every year. His contributions are a cornerstone of the controlled drug delivery industry, which is a $20 billion enterprise in the United States alone.
Langer, the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, received the prize from the National Academy of Engineering at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on 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, with his 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," said 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 held promise for fighting 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 said he had nine straight grant proposals rejected, one potential funder even questioning how an engineer could do such 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 20-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 has written about 700 papers as well as 400 patents that are licensed or sublicensed to more than 80 companies--some launched on his ideas. He has a reputation for helping his students take their theses to the marketplace and said he's very proud of the students he has shepherded into professorships (more than 80 at universities around the world).
"Bob Langer was chosen for the Draper Prize, both for the substance of his contributions and because he is a role model," said National Association of Engineering (NAE) President William 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. For more information, visit the NAE web site .
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 27, 2002.