The engineer who touched billions of lives

Robbert Langer looks into the camera in front of a QEPrize banner.

Categories: QEPrize

29 November 2017


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 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.”

When asked about the impact that winning the QEPrize has had, Bob was keen to credit the flock of students working alongside him at MIT. “I think it’s made everyone in the lab proud of what they’ve done,” he said. “I think they are working harder and are perhaps even more inspired.” This part certainly seems to be true. In the last two years alone, the Langer Lab has published 39 papers in the Science and Nature journals.

The team have also hit headlines in the last few months with the development of long-lasting vaccines, cutting the need to return to the doctor for booster injections.“One big area of research is our work with the Gates Foundation, doing research to help in the developing world,” said Langer. “ These include creating new vaccines, new ways of providing nutrition and developing pills that give medication the lasts longer. This way patients won’t have to worry about forgetting to take them.”

The concept, at first glance, sounds remarkably simple. Tiny devices, which resemble microscopic coffee cups, can be filled with drugs or vaccines and then sealed with a lid. Of course, in practice, there’s much more to it than this.

Each of the ‘cups’ is 3D printed using a special, biodegradable polymer. Different polymers degrade at different rates, meaning some of the cups will spill their contents immediately, while others will hold onto them for longer. In this way, doctors can deliver many doses at once, cutting out the need to return for booster shots. Speaking to MIT about the discovery, Langer pointed out the enormous benefits for patients everywhere. “Especially in the developing world, where patient compliance is particularly poor,” he added.

Engineering advances are happening at a speed and scale that we’ve never seen before. Langer and his team are keen to embrace these emerging technologies in their work. Could any of these be tipped as future QEPrize winners? “Examples already exist of innovations that are changing the world,” he said. “3D printing technology, light-emitting diodes and global positioning satellite are some. I expect self-driving cars will probably appear as well.”

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