2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering winner, Dr Robert Langer, recently spoke with Health Europa about his introduction to bioengineering, his work on large molecule drug delivery, and the progression and impact of bioengineering in recent decades. The below article has been republished with permission.
As this week is European Week Against Cancer (EWAC), we speak to Dr Robert Langer, the first person to engineer polymers to advance drug delivery, treating many diseases such as cancer.
Introducing Dr Langer, the ground-breaking chemical engineer who has been awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for his revolutionary advances in engineering. Langer was named as one of the 25 most important individuals in biotechnology by Forbes Magazine and CNN (1999) and Bio World (1990), and as one of the 100 most important people – ‘America’s Best’ – by Time magazine (2001). In light of European Week Against Cancer, Langer talks to Health Europa about the evolving environment of biotechnology, utilising large molecule-controlled drug delivery, treating diseases such as cancer and the future of his research.
Researchers at Colorado State University have developed a way to detect low levels of antibodies in a person’s blood – potentially allowing the individual to get treatment before they even feel sick. Brian Geiss, a senior researcher in the project, explores the possibilities of such a point-of-care diagnostic below.
“The world is becoming a smaller place” has become a bit of a cliché, but it does have a kernel of truth to it. I can be sitting on my porch in Colorado drinking coffee in the morning, and 12 hours later be having a sushi lunch in Tokyo. The movement of people, goods, and materials all over the world has become so fast and efficient that anything and anyone can get to any part of the world in less than 36 hours. Compared to just 100 years ago, our society has gone from relatively isolated independent countries to a robust interconnected network with constant flow between nodes.
We are pleased to introduce a new judge to the QEPrize judging panel: Jinghai Li. Professor Li established the Energy-Minimization Multi-Scale (EMMS) model for gas-solid systems. Currently, he works to promote the concept of mesoscience based on the EMMS principle of compromise in competition as an interdisciplinary science. We spoke to Professor Li to find out more about him.
What do you consider to be the most important innovation of the last 100 years?
I think the most important innovation has been information technology, which has lead significant changes in social life and human behaviours, such as in communication and computation.
Why is it so important that we attract young people into the field of engineering? What motivates you to be an advocate for young engineers?
At the moment, research paradigm in science and engineering is changing very quickly, calling for new knowledge and new conceptual input. We need young engineers because they are more open to be involved in this change.
Dr Raghunath Mashelkar is a chemical engineer from India. He is currently National Research Professor, Chairman of India’s National Innovation Foundation and President of Global Research Alliance. We are pleased to announce that Dr Mashelkar will be joining the QEPrize judging panel for the 2019 prize.
Why did you become involved with the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering?
Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics, economics, literature, peace and physiology or medicine acknowledged the path breaking human achievements in these fields. But for the first time, Queen Elizabeth Prize in Engineering recognises the great transformative and game changing role that engineers play. Most importantly, the prize recognises ground breaking innovations that bring global benefit to humanity. As a proud engineer, I feel extremely privileged to be a part of the eminent jury for the selection of this great prize.
Modern engineering has moved on from the stage where hardware was always used for manufacturing, and computer software was necessary for programming. Today, we are close to being able to use purely biological approaches to produce drugs, food, clothing and even industrial goods. This discipline is called biological engineering, and progress has accelerated in the last ten years thanks to massive drops in the price of both DNA production and characterisation. However, the complexity of biology and the long time it takes to prototype proteins is still a major roadblock to progress.
Khainza Energy produces clean, affordable, long lasting cooking gas and packages it in cylinders for sale to low income households in Uganda. The gas is produced entirely from organic waste through biochemical processes. Our gas burns with no smoke, no smell and yet costs less than charcoal!
The idea was inspired by a woman living in Eastern Uganda. She gave birth to her first child when she was barely 16 years old. She now has 6 children, whom she has been providing for almost single handedly. Every morning at 4am, the children awake to the loud sound of an axe splitting firewood. They can hear their mother wheezing and coughing in the small kitchen as she prepares their breakfast. Three years ago, this brave woman was diagnosed with an acute respiratory infection. She had spent a large part of her life effectively “smoking”.
As chemical engineers and chemists, we often don’t get to see what we create – molecules are too small to see and chemical processes often happen in closed systems. As such, when we do get to see the fruits of our labor, the result can be incredibly exciting and motivating.
This was the case in the founding of my company, Sironix Renewables. During my PhD at the University of Minnesota, I worked with a team of scientists to develop new, eco-friendly replacements to existing chemicals and fuels. The process involved making renewably-sourced products, like fuels, detergents, and plastics. Finding a suitable replacement to an existing product is great, but for us the ‘holy grail’ was finding something that worked better than what existed.
One of these ‘holy grail’ moments struck us when we were looking at a set of vials – all but one was filled with a cloudy, white liquid. We were looking at the hard water stability of new detergent molecules for things like spray cleaners and laundry detergents, and the cloudy, white liquid meant it didn’t work well. The one clear vial, however, was our new detergent molecule and it performed flawlessly. This was one of the few moments where we got to see the result of our work.
Two years ago, on a rainy Monday in October, Queen Elizabeth II handed the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering to Dr Robert Langer. Only the second person to receive the award, the chemical engineer was honoured for his life’s work in developing ways to control the release of large-molecule drugs over time.
Used by 300 pharmaceutical, chemical and biotechnology companies, and featuring in some 1000 patents, Bob’s work has touched the lives of 2 billion people worldwide. His technology has helped develop treatments for cancer, diabetes and mental illnesses. He has even worked with famed voice surgeon, Steven Zeitels, to treat vocal injuries like those suffered by Julie Andrews and Adele.
Two years after receiving the award, Bob remains delightfully humbled by his success. “It was such a tremendous honour,” he said. “Firstly, it was a thrill to meet the Queen, who was so nice, and to meet five other members of the Royal Family. It’s such a wonderful prize and it’s hard for me to believe I could receive such an honour.”