Professor touts biomedical engineering gadgets

Imagine a microchip implant that could act like a miniature pharmacy inside your body, releasing medicines when it deemed necessary. Professor Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims this could be part of the future of drug delivery.

Speaking to a capacity crowd in Davies Auditorium on Tuesday, the acclaimed chemical and biomedical engineer described how newly synthesized materials will change human therapeutics. The lecture, entitled “Engineered Biomaterials: How They Will Change Our Lives,” is the third lecture in a series celebrating the 150th anniversary of engineering at Yale.

“First you have to ask the question of what you really want, and then you figure out how to synthesize it,” Langer said, referring to his research philosophy. “Before our research, most materials used in medicine were off-the-shelf items, such as ladies’ girdles to construct artificial hearts.”

Through the course of his research, Langer tackled the problem of creating a well-controlled drug delivery system. Before Langer’s work, it was nearly impossible to get disease treatments efficiently to their targets. The drug molecules used were too large and could not be properly released through current plastic delivery systems.

So Langer engineered just such a degradable plastic — a polymer that would allow for the controlled release of the drug inside it.

“What I wanted to do is make drugs smarter,” Langer said, adding that this particular area of his research has had an enormous scientific impact.

Langer’s creative engineering opened the door for the delivery of medicine to difficult locations within the human body. One such polymer has led to a novel brain cancer treatment — a less toxic, local form of chemotherapy that can be applied directly to the brain — breaking a 20 year drought in FDA-approved brain cancer treatments.

His contributions to the controlled drug delivery industry, which has grown into a $20 billion market in the United States, also include a new vehicle for the inhalation of medicines, increasing their absorption tenfold.

“The thing that came across most strongly to me is that Professor Langer has always taken the approach of looking at problems in unconventional ways; engineering new materials to do the specific job, rather than try to make use of what nature has provided or what is lying around in the kitchen,” Dean of Engineering Paul Fleury said.

For his work, Langer was most recently awarded the 2002 Charles Stark Draper Prize — often referred to as “engineering’s Nobel Prize” — for inventing technologies that prolong lives and ease the suffering of millions every year. He is also currently the only person that is an active member of three of the most prominent national scientific academies — the national science, engineering, and medicine academies.

Langer said he has written a paper that will be published in the journal Science in a few weeks that will reveal groundbreaking work on “smart” materials. These memory polymers include sutures that are self-knotting, changing shape based on temperature.

“I don’t think you can find a person in the world who has hit on more dimensions, whether it’s intellectual with his recognition with the academies, publications, training students, building new businesses,” Fleury said. “He is truly inspiring.”

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