The World's Most Cited Engineer: Dr Robert Langer

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Today’s guest is a renowned chemical engineer and 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Laureate, Dr Robert Langer. A pioneer in biotechnology, including large molecule controlled drug delivery and nanotechnology, Langer is also regarded as the founder of tissue engineering. His work is 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.

In this episode of the Create the Future podcast, we speak with Dr Langer about his engineering journey, from career setbacks to the launch of over 40 biotech companies. We hear how his 2015 QEPrize-winning technology enabled Moderna's COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, explore the field of tissue engineering, and discuss why multidisciplinary teams are essential for innovation.

Episode highlights

  • “We had to develop these delivery systems, which would often be tiny particles that could deliver an angiogenesis inhibitor or stimulator […] that's where I got involved in trying to come up with ways to create microparticles and nanoparticles that could deliver large molecules.”
  • “When I first gave lectures on this work, they were ridiculed. People said that what I was doing was impossible. The consequence of that is my first nine research grants were rejected. No chemical engineering department in the world would offer me a faculty position [..] but I was persistent. I got lots of other rejections and I still do.”
  • “What I started doing when inventing was, ask the question ‘what do you really want in the material from an engineering standpoint, from a biology standpoint, from a chemistry standpoint?’, and then we would design them on the blackboard from first principles and make them.”
  • “In 2010, four of us started the company Moderna with the idea of creating messenger RNA therapeutics. One of the keys that would turn out to be important was having a way to deliver the messenger RNA through nanoparticles [...] In 1976 we published it and people were very sceptical, but over the years, we and others would break down those barriers and design better and better nanoparticles. So nanoparticles really are one of the keys to creating messenger RNA vaccines.”
  • “I think engineering is a great profession. It helps you think about the things you learn directly, but also the things you can learn indirectly—problem solving and trying to make an impact […] When somebody is a young engineer, you want to learn fundamentals.”
  • “I was honoured that they picked me to receive the QEPrize. In a way, I have to give the award committee a lot of credit, because they picked the work we have done on drug delivery for macromolecules as being important. Just a few years later it would become even more important because it helped enable the COVID-19 vaccine.”

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