Dr Robert Langer discusses the five areas to watch in biomedical engineering
QEPrize winner Dr Robert Langer has recently been selected as one of the five 2018 US Science Envoys. In his new position, he will focus on novel approaches in biomaterials, drug delivery systems, nanotechnology, tissue engineering, and the U.S. approach to research commercialization. Science envoys are critical to strengthening bilateral science and technology relationships in the US, engaging with international audiences at all levels, and advancing policy objectives — such as increasing the number of women in science and advocating for science-based decision making.
Dr Langer was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for his revolutionary advances and leadership in engineering at the interface with chemistry and medicine. The technologies that his lab created have improved the lives of over two billion people around the world.
Given his recent appointment, we asked Dr Langer for his opinion of the top five areas in biomedical engineering 'to watch', as well as his thoughts on the potential for international collaboration.
What do you think people should be keeping tabs on?
Coupling the rate of development in biomedicine and biotechnology with the increased regularity of multidisciplinary work, I see a lot of potential in cell therapy. With cell therapy, we can engineer immune cells to kill tumours, engineer new organic tissues from the ground up, or create entirely synthetic tissues with organ-on-a-chip (OOC) technology.
Nanotechnology has a plethora of future biomedical applications. However, I would specifically watch out for the use of nanotechnology in delivering gene therapy agents (such as siRNA and mRNA), as well as its use as a gene editing agent.
Digital medicine and artificial intelligence in medicine.
Much like the situation with cell therapy – there are copious multidisciplinary projects occurring and a rapid pace of innovation in the respective fields. Factoring in the increasing precision of technology and the breadth of uses for AI, we will likely start to see the commercialisation of ingestible sensor technology, and the start of AI-based medical treatments.
Specifically, I think significant potential lies in the approaches used for producing biopharmaceuticals. This includes protein engineering, genetic engineering, and directed evolution.
Significant development of new tools to understand brain diseases, as well as new approaches used to treat them, is likely. There is also room to enhance current techniques, such as optogenetics and deep brain stimulation.
In your new role, what potential opportunities do you see for international collaboration in innovation?
There are many possibilities. One of my lab’s principal focuses, for example, is research sponsored by the Gates Foundation. The project is designed to help people in the developing world by programming the precise release of multiple booster shots into a single injection. This work could greatly improve patient compliance in regions without consistent access to medical treatment, and amalgamates new approaches to vaccine development, better nutrition, and new kinds of pills and capsules.
Additionally, developments in one region can serve as a platform for further work and innovation elsewhere. The world is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent, and there are copious opportunities for global collaboration. The research and biomedical community will only be the richer for it.
Outside of his duties as a US science envoy, Dr Langer’s current work includes:
- Investigating the mechanism of release from polymeric delivery systems with concomitant microstructural analysis and mathematical modelling, as well as studying the potential applications.
- Developing controlled release systems that can be electronically (in the form of a microchip) or ultrasonically triggered to increase release rates.
- Synthesizing new biodegradable polymeric delivery systems for absorption by the body.
- Creating new approaches for delivering drugs such as proteins and genes across complex barriers in the body such as the blood-brain barrier, the intestine, the lung and the skin.
- Researching new ways to create tissue and organs, including creating new polymer systems for tissue engineering.
- Stem cell research including controlling growth and differentiation.
- Creating new biomaterials with shape memory or surface switching properties.
- Angiogenesis inhibition.
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