Meet Prof Robert Langer – he may have already saved your life

20 Jun 2017

Pioneer, teacher, entrepreneur and inventor, Prof Robert Langer, David H Koch Institute professor at MIT, has affected around 2bn people through his discoveries. Image: Sean Curtin/True Media

How do you get a drug from the lab into a device and deliver it to the tiniest area of the human body? Ask Prof Robert Langer.

Robert Langer

MIT professor Robert Langer is credited with affecting the lives of billions of people on Earth.

He hasn’t done this through music, film or creating a ubiquitous soft drink. Rather, Langer’s addiction to discovery has led to well in excess of 1,000 patents that have reached commercial stage.

Hundreds of companies engage with these patents, with dozens of biotech companies created, at least in part, by Langer and his expertise.

He has won more awards and recommendations than you probably thought were possible, numbered in the hundreds, and, in one excellent ‘Day in the Life’ article in 2009, the sheer volume of his daily activities was documented in detail.

In terms of medical engineering, he’s the biggest show in town. Delayed drug delivery and tissue engineering are two realms in which Langer is a god. In short, Langer is the real deal.

“When I was a graduate student, I was a chemical engineer. When I got done, almost all of my colleagues went to oil companies. I applied and got 20 job offers from oil companies, four from Exxon alone,” he recently told BBC’s Desert Island Discs.

If Langer could increase the yield from just one petrochemical, for example, he could bring in billions of dollars of revenues for these energy giants.

Academia awaits

But Langer wasn’t excited by that and, after landing a role at Harvard University, his relentless pursuit of discovery was revealed to the world.

Initially tasked with isolating molecules that inhibit blood vessels, Langer’s first project saw him invent microparticles that release an inhibitor of blood vessel growth to starve the growing tumours.

This was a huge discovery, though few saw it that way. Nobody took it up initially.

Langer got frustrated, so he helped to create a company called Enzytech (later merged with Alkermes), and controlled-release drug delivery was born.

Prof Robert Langer, David H Koch Institute Professor at MIT. Image: Sean Curtin True Media. Editing:

Prof Robert Langer, David H Koch Institute professor at MIT. Image: Sean Curtin/True Media. Edit:

Decades later, with discoveries, students and companies as far as the eye can see, Langer’s fingerprints are all over the biotech industry, so much so that the view is obscured.

At this stage, according to Langer, he has reached a sort of consultancy status.

“Basically, what I end up doing are things like coming up with ideas from working with my students,” he told while in Ireland to speak at the Bernal Distinguished Lecturer Series at University of Limerick (UL).

“I’m not in the lab as much as I used to,” he said, almost wistfully, “but I try to come up with ideas, and a lot of what I do now ends up with me giving advice on experiments; troubleshooting things, trying to help my students with their careers.”

Work, work, work

That said, Langer’s distancing himself from the day-to-day achievements at his lab is a bit disingenuous.

With almost 200,000 citations, his work is continuous. In April this year, Lyndra, a start-up looking at oral therapeutic delivery, raised $23m in funding. Langer is a co-founder.

A new drug-release mechanism that sees a capsule slowly release the payload for up to two weeks in the stomach was developed in November last year. This revolutionary concept had a notable senior author on the research paper: Langer.

Another drug that could, one day, combat hearing loss emerged in a more recent scientific paper. Again, Langer was a senior author.

And, with an eye to the future, it’s clear he’s not slowing down anytime soon.

Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, burns, spinal injuries and hair health are just a few areas to benefit from his addiction to discovery.

Langer’s schedule is so packed that he has mastered the art of the short-hop transatlantic trip. He’s such a pro at this that during one spell, when he visited Israel for an event five years in a row, he wasn’t even using a hotel.

In, out, and back to the MIT lab.

“We’ve been fortunate,” he said of his immense academic research institute. “We’ve probably had nearly 1,000 students and postdoctorates come through – 300 are now professors, all over the world, including Ireland.”

While at UL this month, Langer’s talk was chaired by Dr Sarah Hudson, lecturer in chemistry at the university and a former postdoctoral researcher in his MIT lab.

UL’s Dr John Mulvihill and Prof Robert Langer at The Bernal Distinguished Lecture Series at the Analog Devices building, UL. Image: Sean Curtin True Media

UL’s Dr John Mulvihill and Prof Robert Langer at the Bernal Distinguished Lecture Series at the Analog Devices building, UL. Image: Sean Curtin/True Media

Pass the tissues

When asked what he believes is coming round the corner, tissue regeneration, the second strand to his dual expertise, comes to the fore.

A lot of stuff is happening right now, he told me, but sometimes the delays that exist throughout the chain of discovery, development and release can prove arduous.

“The issues are what it’s going take to make these things clinically viable,” he said of the organ regeneration projects emerging throughout the scientific world of late.

“Creating new tissues in organs, organ regeneration – this is a very exciting area. But I also feel nanotechnology is a really exciting area, too, as are certain types of gene therapy.

“We have looked at different areas of nanotechnology, for delivery within the body. Targeting cancer cells, or messenger RNAs …”

Langer trailed off but the keyword in the statement is ‘we’, with a swathe of students now, under his guise, pushing the envelope further and further in terms of medical science.

“We’ve come a tremendous way,” he said, “looking at either the number of patients affected or sales. Now, over 100m people every year use these kinds of advanced drug delivery systems. This has made possible a lot of new treatments.”

Speak up

One restriction in the industry, though, is communication. Langer, much like Fergus Shanahan at APC Microbiome, thinks getting the word out is perhaps harder than it should be.

“People do communicate things in their literature,” he said. “Science is a wonderful profession that can really help people. It’s a very positive thing to help the economy, jobs, but it doesn’t get the same attention that actors or actresses or sports heroes get.

“The importance of communicating is: how do you get young people excited?”

One major restriction, or at least a major fear of restriction to scientific discovery, currently sits in the highest office in the US, with President Donald Trump hardly an enthusiastic advocate of the scientific community.

Science enthusiasts have taken to the streets, both in the US and worldwide, to campaign for continued funding and greater focus. This, according to Langer, is perfectly natural.

“I think there’s a fear that, with the new administration, it may make it harder to get funding for science and to do things.

“We’ll have to see what happens. The marches are intended to show the world how important science is, which is a good thing. We don’t want that fear to come through.

“Over time, I don’t think there’s any question that science will march forward. There will be setbacks. Galileo had setbacks. We’re all the richer as a population when science can do good things.”

To date, his science has done amazing things.

“When you’re a student, you’re judged by how well you answer questions. Somebody else asks the questions, and if you give good answers, you’ll get a good grade. But in life, you’re judged by how good your questions are,” he once said.

Langer’s questions are endless, but his answers are life-changing.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic