Dr Robert Langer Q&A

Q1: Who is Dr Robert Langer?

Dr Robert Langer FREng is an American engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and winner of the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. He is the most cited engineer in history, having been cited nearly 170,000 times. He has an H index of 210.

Dr Langer is an internationally acclaimed inventor and engineer, with over 1,000 issued and pending patents and 1,300 published articles. His work as a chemical engineer in the medical and surgical fields made him a pioneer in bioengineering, drug delivery, tissue engineering, and nanotechnology.

Dr Langer has won a dizzying array of prizes and awards, 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 influential people in America by Time magazine (2001).

Q2: What was Robert Langer like before he became an engineer?

Langer’s interest in chemistry was sparked at a young age, when his parents bought him a Gilbert chemistry set. As an 11-year-old he set up a small laboratory in the basement of his house in Albany, N.Y. In high school, he was the top runner on his varsity track team, and he continues to exercise extensively today.

While completing his education, Langer helped start a school, the Group School, which was based on democratic educational principles. In the 1970s, the town of Cambridge, MA was a study in contrasts. It had world-class research institutions, but it also had the highest high school dropout rate in America for a city of its size. Langer’s experience at the Group School, which aimed to reach those who had dropped out, led to him to create new science curriculum that was accessible, motiving, and enjoyable for his students.

Q3: How did engineering impact Robert Langer’s life?

Langer studied chemical engineering at Cornell University and received his Sc.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1974. He was driven by a desire to use his chemical engineering background to directly improve peoples’ lives, so he took a job as a postdoctoral fellow in a hospital. In the 1970s, this was a very unusual route for a chemical engineer. This experience, coupled with his engineering training, set the stage for his ground-breaking advances in bioengineering.

Q4: Who did Robert Langer learn from and work with early on?

As a postdoctoral fellow, Langer worked for cancer researcher and surgeon Dr Judah Folkman at the Children’s Hospital Boston and at Harvard Medical School. Folkman was a visionary and an excellent role model for Langer. As a student in Harvard Medical School, Folkman developed one of the earliest pacemakers. In the early 1970s, he hypothesized that controlling the way blood vessels form in tumours could yield new ways to treat cancer. Working from this basis and with Folkman, Langer developed new and innovative technologies, focusing on restricting tumour growth and on developing controlled-release drug delivery systems.

In the 1980s, Langer worked with Harvard surgeon and transplant researcher Jay Vacanti. They discovered that tissues and organs could be produced from cell cultures on three-dimensional polymer scaffolds. This work helped lay the foundation for the field of tissue engineering.

Q5: How has Robert Langer used engineering to change the world?

In his early research, Langer encountered a great deal of scepticism; this led to the rejection of his nine initial research grant applications. However, he persevered. The FDA approved his polymer-based treatment for brain cancer in 1996, and many other products have since matured from the lab to the public. Following this approval, Langer participated in the founding of multiple technology companies, including Enzytech (which merged with Alkermes), Momenta Pharmaceuticals, T2 Biosystems, and Moderna Therapeutics.

He has also directly changed the lives of over 800 students in fields ranging from medicine to electrical and chemical engineering to physics and chemistry. Nearly 300 are professors; and many lead companies around the world. Langer’s research laboratory at MIT is the largest academic biomedical engineering lab in the world, maintaining over $15 million in annual grants and over 100 researchers. 14 of his trainees are in the National Academy of Engineering or in the Royal Academy of Engineering.