Dr Robert Langer was the founding figure in the field of large molecule controlled drug delivery. His training as a chemical engineer and fundamental understanding of the sciences enabled him to make advances at the intersection of new materials synthesis and applied engineering. His work was the basis for, among countless other innovations, long-lasting treatments for brain cancer, prostate cancer, endometriosis, schizophrenia, diabetes, and the drug-coated cardiovascular stents that alone have benefited 10 million patients.
Large molecules hold the key to tackling long-standing problems like cancer, mental illness, and diabetes. Unlike small molecules, which might have a few dozen atoms, large molecules can have 20,000 atoms and be hundreds of times heavier. Furthermore, the structure that a large molecule takes is vital to its function, and large molecule drugs are vulnerable to deforming in the body’s environment.
Langer created a polymer and a system that overcame all of these challenges. Incorporating biomolecules into the creation of his polymer resulted in one that contained water-filled channels through which the large molecules could travel. Scientists originally believed that large molecules could not travel directly through polymers; Langer gave them another path by applying an understanding of engineering phenomena. By engineering the channels such that they wound around in long, precise pathways, Langer could control the amount of time it took to disperse large molecules. Faster systems are like walking through a park where the trees have all been planted in rows. Finding a way out is quick because the path is direct. In contrast, Langer’s paths are like trying to hike out of a forest filled with winding trails. He could design each path to take a certain amount of time. Additionally, the polymer itself broke down in a controlled fashion. This was another way to protect the fragile large molecules and release them at the correct rate, over as much as five years.
Langer and many other researchers have extended his founding work into nano- medicine, tissue engineering, and to fields as diverse as agriculture and cosmetics.