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Inventors Hall of Fame to induct 2 professors

Robert Langer
Robert Langer
Photo / Donna Coveney
Ali Javan
Ali Javan
Photo / Ed McCluney

Two MIT professors have been named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the hall announced on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

Robert Langer, an Institute Professor, and Ali Javan, professor emeritus of physics, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on May 6.

Langer was selected for his work developing sustained-release drug delivery systems, and Javan was honored for inventing the helium-neon laser.

Langer, who holds more than 500 patents, discovered a way to control the delivery of large-molecule drugs by using biodegradable polymers to engineer synthetic materials that allow for precisely timed chemical release. Langer's groundbreaking discovery allowed for cancer treatment with large molecules that could not previously be used therapeutically because the body's enzymes attacked and destroyed them when they were given orally or injected.

"Cited as one of history's most prolific inventors in medicine, Robert Langer has revolutionized biomedical technology through the development of controlled drug delivery," reads the Hall of Fame citation.

Langer's innovative products include a chemotherapy wafer for the treatment of brain cancer, a device that cuts the pain associated with needles and IVs, and transdermal patches for delivery of drugs such as nicotine and birth control hormones. He is also a pioneer in tissue engineering, and last year he developed plastics that can change shape in response to light.

His research has spawned more than a dozen biotechnology firms and more than 35 products that are either currently on the market or in human testing.

During his career, Langer has received more than 130 scientific awards, including the $500,000 Charles Stark Draper Prize -- considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers -- and the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the nation's largest and most prestigious prize for invention.

Langer joined the MIT faculty in 1977 as a visiting professor in what was then the Department of Nutrition and Food Science. A graduate of Cornell University, he received the Sc.D. from MIT in chemical engineering in 1974. After earning his doctorate, he worked in the laboratory of Dr. Judah Folkman at Children's Hospital.

Javan, one of the world's foremost laser physicists, won international acclaim for his invention of the world's first gas laser. He conceived the gas laser principle in 1958, and, while a member of the technical staff at the Bell Telephone Laboratory, he developed and successfully operated the first gas laser (the well-known and widely used helium-neon laser) in 1960.

"Having made pioneering contributions to applied laser technology, Ali Javan's most significant invention is the helium-neon laser, the most useful, practical and profitable type of laser in use today," reads the citation from the Hall of Fame.

His invention -- the first laser to operate continuously and the first laser to operate on the principle of converting electrical energy to a laser light output --attracted international attention almost overnight. It is now used in a variety of applications, including holography and UPC code checkout scanners.

As a student, Javan spent a year at university in Tehran, where he was born, before coming to the United States. He entered Columbia University in 1948 and received his Ph.D. in physics in 1954. He remained at Columbia as an instructor until 1958, when he joined the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J.

Javan came to MIT as an associate professor of physics in 1961 and was appointed professor in 1964. He established a major research laboratory and developed it into the largest university laser research laboratory of the 1960s and most of the 1970s. Many of the early breakthroughs in scientific uses of lasers took place at his MIT laser laboratory.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 15, 2006 (download PDF).

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