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Langer talk highlights cancer symposium

Robert Langer gives a talk on 'Cancer Drug Delivery' at Kresge Auditorium during a symposium on 'The New Science of Cancer Therapy' held Friday, June 24.
Robert Langer gives a talk on 'Cancer Drug Delivery' at Kresge Auditorium during a symposium on 'The New Science of Cancer Therapy' held Friday, June 24.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Though his drug delivery systems are now widely lauded, Robert Langer faced an uphill battle getting funding, the Institute Professor told a crowd of more than 1,200 students, faculty, researchers, doctors and businesspeople gathered in Kresge Auditorium on June 24.

Langer struck a personal note during his talk, "Cancer Drug Delivery," which he delivered as part of a daylong symposium sponsored by the MIT Center for Cancer Research.

He told the crowd that his research underwent years of intense and often frustrating scrutiny before winning FDA approval. Langer nevertheless encouraged others in the room to continue their research and persist in their pursuits. "There is a lot of good science that could be done by the people in this room and elsewhere," he said.

The fourth annual symposium on "The New Science of Cancer Therapy" featured talks by 13 researchers, scientists and engineers, including Langer, Dr. William Kaelin of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Robert A. Weinberg, MIT's Daniel K. Ludwig and American Cancer Society Professor for Cancer Research.

Langer's work has received a number of awards and honors in recent years, including the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, America's top prize in medicine, and the General Motors Kettering Prize, the world's largest cancer prize, but he said it was not a smooth ride.

Although his background was in chemical engineering, a pipeline into the oil industry during the 1970s, his research pursuits and interests were unusual. "I would like to think that engineers can make contributions to cancer research," he said.

Langer's talk highlighted his revolutionary research into new and different ways to administer drugs to cancer patients, including delivery systems that keep the drugs at desirable levels, thus eliminating the need for frequent dosing. Additionally, the systems can specifically target cells in a way that previous treatments could not.

One such system places microchips--designed with tiny wells loaded with drugs and covered with gold foil caps--under the skin or into the spinal cord or brain. An electrical signal dissolves the cap and releases the medication, a process Langer likened to a garage door opening.

Langer described the long process his work went through on its way to funding. He started his research in the mid-1970s and found about "200 different ways to get it not to work," before finally finding a way that would. In1980, Langer tried to get funding for his research and was denied. Each year, he and his graduate students--all of whom have gone on to their own successful careers in research--were turned down for a variety of reasons. Finally, in 1996, the FDA approved one of the systems.

An engaging speaker, Langer also recently gave a keynote address at "Dream in Science: Phase II," a benefit for the Math, Science, Technology After-School Initiative held at the Hotel@MIT June 2. He shared the podium with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at the event, which MIT helped sponsor. The United Way of Massachusetts Bay, together with industry and community partners, launched Phase I of the initiative in 2004, leading to the development of three after-school sites. The mission of Phase II is to develop at least 18 out-of-school sites helping promote in children a lifelong interest in the sciences.

The cancer symposium was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Stanley J. Korsmeyer, who died of lung cancer on March 31. At Washington University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Korsmeyer's research into cell death control and cancer was critical to cancer pathogenesis and treatment.

"As highlighted in today's presentation, the cancer research community has made great strides in developing more powerful and more effective agents and strategies for treating cancer," the program for the symposium noted. "However, Stan's death is a powerful reminder of how far we still have to go."

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