Professor Robert Langer is having a big day Thursday, receiving two prestigious awards for his achievements in biomedical engineering in cities almost 6,000 miles apart.
He will receive the $250,000 Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment in Pennsylvania, and the $75,000 Harvey Prize at ceremonies in Israel. Langer, who learned of the Harvey Prize first, will personally accept that award in Haifa. His wife, Dr. Laura Langer, will accept the Heinz award on his behalf in Pittsburgh.
"Dr. Robert Langer is a medical pioneer in the guise of an engineer," said Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation. "He has created new science, revolutionizing the delivery of drugs and the engineering of human tissue, two new areas of discovery that offer the promise of recovery to those afflicted with a variety of conditions. A peerless and perseverant trailblazer, he has made contributions that touch ours and future generations."
Langer received the Harvey Prize for "exceptional contributions in biomaterials and biomedical technology and his groundbreaking work in developing new principles and materials for controlled drug delivery and tissue engineering."
Normally two Harvey Prizes are awarded each year. However, this year the selection committee made the unusual decision to award only one prize because Langer's work qualifies in both areas in which this year's prize was to be given, "science and technology" and "human health."
A chemical engineer by training, Langer began his career in the mid-1970s as an MIT graduate student at Children's Hospital in Boston. Recruited by the noted cancer researcher and surgeon Judah Folkman, Langer focused his research on finding a plastic material that would allow large molecules of protein to seep through at a slow and steady pace, thus isolating them to determine how they interact with tumors.
He failed again and again until he began experimenting with the plastics in powder form. It was a breakthrough that led to the launch of a new field--controlled drug release. A steady wave of discoveries would follow: magnetically controlled drug-release implants, transdermal ultrasound drug delivery and 3-D polymer scaffolds for growing human tissue, among others.
Langer, the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, is the holder of 500 issued and pending patents. More than 100 different companies license those patents and are creating products based on his innovations.
In addition to improving the lives of countless patients, Dr. Langer's discoveries have spawned an entire industry. The annual market for controlled-release drugs exceeds $20 billion today.
The only active member of all three U.S. national academies (engineering, science and medicine), Langer has a worldwide reputation not only for his innovations but also for helping his students take their ideas to the marketplace. More than 200 of his students are working at pharmaceutical and medical-device companies, biotech firms and universities in the United States, Europe and Asia. His MIT laboratory is the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world.
"As an engineer, I have been particularly fortunate that my life's work has helped to bring healing and hope to so many people," Langer said in a Heinz Foundation press release. "And I have been privileged over the past 30 years to have worked shoulder to shoulder with some of science's most able and dedicated minds. This award not only celebrates our achievements but it also recognizes our failures, which is always the starting point for new discoveries. On behalf of my colleagues and students through the years, I want to thank the Heinz Family Foundation for this tremendous honor."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 3, 2003.