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Langer wins top prize in medicine

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Institute Professor Robert S. Langer has won the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, America's top prize in medicine.

"The world owes an infinite debt of gratitude to Dr. Langer for his pioneering work in the field of drug delivery systems that has improved the lives of more than 60 million people each year," said James J. Barba, chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center.

"Dr. Langer's work has spawned revolutionary advances in cancer treatment, has given birth to an entirely new field of biotechnology known as tissue engineering, and most recently has fueled the development of cardiac stents that have virtually eliminated the risk of restenosis in patients undergoing treatment for cardiovascular disease.

"On a personal note, this is a particularly exciting day for all of us with ties to the Capital Region, as this is the first time the Selection Committee has chosen an outstanding scientist who also happens to be an Albany native, a true hometown hero." Langer was born at Albany Hospital, the forerunner to the Albany Medical Center for which the Albany Prize is named.

The Albany Medical Center Prize is one of the largest prizes in medicine worldwide, second only to the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Langer reported being "thrilled and shocked" when he learned of the honor. "It's humbling to be in the company of the people who've already won this prize," Langer said. Previous recipients include Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a scientific leader who was recognized for his seminal work on AIDS and other diseases of the immune system, and Dr. Arnold J. Levine, who co-discovered the p53 protein, described as perhaps the most important tumor suppressor gene in human cancer.

Langer was selected for the Albany Medical Center Prize for his entire body of scientific work, most notably his seminal research on polymer-based drug delivery systems, which has allowed clinicians to control the release of large molecules in a slow, steady and controlled manner. Prior to Langer's groundbreaking discovery, many large molecules could not be used therapeutically because they could not be given orally nor could they be delivered via injection since the body's enzymes attacked and destroyed them.

The practical application of Langer's work has led to the development of an array of plastic devices that are surgically implanted to deliver medicines and hormones in precisely regulated amounts over long periods of time.

The polymer-coated, drug-eluting stent that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2003 for use in the treatment of cardiovascular disease is one of the more celebrated examples of the translational benefits of this research. Other well-known applications include the development of a controlled-release system that was approved for use with a large molecule peptide drug that combats advanced prostate cancer, endometriosis and other diseases in more than 300,000 patients each year.

Langer's research is credited with paving the way for the advent of a radical new discipline called tissue engineering, which scientists hope will one day obviate the need for donor organs.

He is also credited with helping to develop the concept of local chemotherapy, whereby neurosurgeons are able to use dime-size wafers to deliver potent drugs to the exact spot where a tumor was removed, severely limiting side effects and extending the lives of patients.

The Albany Medical Center Prize was established in November 2000 following a $50 million gift commitment to Albany Medical Center from Morris "Marty" Silverman, a New York City businessman and philanthropist who was born in Troy, N.Y., and educated in nearby Albany.

The annual prize was created to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving health care and promoting biomedical research to improve patient care.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 4, 2005 (download PDF).

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