Robert Langer, a pioneering biomedical engineer and entrepreneur whose inventions have transformed drug delivery and tissue engineering, has won the £1m Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.
Prof Langer, 66, runs the 100-strong bioengineering department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It is a great honour to win what is by far the biggest engineering award in the world,” he told the Financial Times ahead of the prize announcement on Tuesday at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London.
The prize, which the Queen will present to Professor Langer later this year, is a UK initiative intended to promote engineering globally. It makes up for the absence for a Nobel award for engineering, said Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive who chairs the prize foundation.
He said he felt particularly honoured to be the sole winner of the 2015 prize – the second time it has been awarded. The first prize, presented in 2013, was shared by five people who developed the internet.
Prof Langer, who trained as a chemical engineer, began biomedical work in 1974 as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Judah Folkman, a Harvard scientist developing treatments for cancer that work by cutting off the tumour’s blood supply. “All my chemical engineering friends were going into the oil industry then but that didn’t interest me,” he said.
His first success was to find a way to release biological anti-cancer compounds slowly and reliably into the patient’s bloodstream — something never achieved before. Through extensive experimentation, he engineered biodegradable polymers (specialised plastics) that could absorb the large molecules required for cancer treatment and then release them at the required rate.
Prof Langer’s drug delivery system is the basis of many of today’s treatments for cancer — such as Gliadel for brain tumours — and other diseases from schizophrenia to diabetes.
He has also made many innovations in tissue engineering, working with Joseph Vacanti, another Harvard surgeon, to develop synthetic polymers that can deliver living cells to form new tissues and organs. This concept has led to artificial skin, approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treating burns and leg ulcers, while other tissue engineering systems are in clinical trials for forming cartilage and even repairing damaged spinal cord.
Prof Langer’s lab is currently working on several bioelectronics projects. One is a microchip implant that can store and release precise drug doses over long periods; it can respond to wireless signals or a biochemical sensor in the body. More futuristic is a microscopic “injectrode” that will act like an artificial neuron inside the brain.
“I want to make sure that findings and discoveries from our lab get out into the world as fast and as efficiently as possible,” he said. For that reason he has become a businessman too. “I have been involved in founding 27 or 28 companies,” he said. “Though I think of myself as a scientist and a professor first, I have become something of an entrepreneur.”
Lord Broers, chair of the QE Prize judges, explained that they decided to honour Prof Langer for “his immense contribution to healthcare and to numerous other fields by applying engineering systems thinking to biochemical problems”.
Lord Broers said: “Not only has he revolutionised drug delivery but his open-minded approach to innovation and his ability to think outside the box have led to great advances in the field of tissue engineering.”
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