Robert Langer is regarded as one of the most influential figures in biomedical engineering. He conducts basic and translational research on drug delivery methods and tissue engineering. His work has led to therapies that combat the spread of cancer and other diseases. Langer currently directs the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which supports over 100 researchers.
As a boy, Langer had a fascination for magic and magic tricks. At age 11, his parents gave him a chemistry set; he set up a makeshift lab in the basement of his home where Langer would mix chemicals and watch the solutions change colors. In high school, Langer gravitated toward science classes and languished in writing and English. He would later go on to complete degrees in Chemical Engineering at Cornell University and MIT.
After completing his graduate work, Langer secured a postdoctoral fellowship conducting research on stopping cancer growth. His early work in this area laid the foundation for today’s most successful cancer treating drugs. Langer went on to teach and conduct research at MIT, where he is currently is an Institute Professor (the highest honor a faculty member can hold at MIT) in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering.
Langer’s career hasn’t been without struggle. He was turned down nine times before securing funding to begin his own line of research. The trend would continue as Langer applied for patents and was repeatedly turned away. “People didn’t believe in my ideas; they didn’t think this type of work was possible,” said Langer. It took 28 years for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the first anti-cancer drug resulting from his work. But Langer pressed forward and he advises his students to do the same.
“I think it is important to dream big dreams, and to try to do whatever you can to fulfill those dreams; to not give up if things don’t go well, because very often they won’t and you just have to hang in there,” he said. Langer also advises students to “take chances” and “conduct high impact, high reward research.”
Patience and determination paid off for Langer. He has made extraordinary achievements in biotechnology throughout his career. He and his collaborators successfully developed a drug-delivery system for the treatment of brain cancer that delivers chemotherapy directly to a tumor site; they have engineered blood vessels and muscle tissue to repair damaged tissue; and developed ways to treat schizophrenia, alcoholism, diabetes, and many other diseases. In recent years, Langer and colleagues have been working with the U.S. Army on a regenerative tissue project for wounded soldiers.
Langer’s biggest motivation is helping people through the work that he is involved with. First and foremost, this means utilizing bioengineering principles to “make the world a better, healthier place.” But to Langer, it also means helping to usher to next generation of scientists, inventors, and big-thinkers into their budding careers. He encourages his students explore cutting-edge research, but also to learn the fundamentals of the field in order to possess the tools necessary to foster discovery and innovation.
In the future, Langer envisions that major areas of growth in biomedical engineering will stem from drug-delivery systems, regenerative medicine, and the intersections between the brain and engineering and immunology and engineering.
Langer is a prolific inventor who has well over 1,000 patents to his name. He received the Charles Stark Draper Award, considered engineering’s Nobel Prize, and has the distinction of being the youngest person elected to all three of the nation’s science academies: the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Institute of Medicine. He is one of only a handful of individuals to have received both the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest honors bestowed by the United States government on scientists and engineers.