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Biomaterials Focus of Langer's Killian Talk

By Venkatesh Satish
contributing editor

Killian Award recipient Robert S. Langer ScD '74, the Germehausen Professor of Chemical andBiomedical Engineering, delivered the annual Killian Award Lecture on the topic of "Biomaterials and How They Will Change our Lives."

Now in its 26th year, the Killian award is presented to a faculty member for outstanding professional accomplishments. It commemorates former Institute President and Chair of the Corporation James R. Killian, Jr.'26.

The committee that selected Langer said that he was recognized because of his contributions to the fields of drug delivery, artificial organs, and angiogenesis.

The committee described him as "an outstanding scientist with daring, boundless energy, and prophetic vision; an excellent teacher; and a superb human being."

In a brief introduction preceding the lecture, Chair of the Faculty Lotte Bailyn noted that Langer's work may supplant the need for implants. Langer followed with a presentation summarizing the innovations in the field of material science that relate to medical and biological applications.

Lecturer discusses advances

One major innovation Langer addressed is the design of polymer materials to precisely control diffusive properties. By altering their pore structures, materials can be used to regulate the delivery profile of drugs, Langer said.

Instead of giving patients bursts of drugs, clinicians may now provide steady doses over longer periods of time, Langer said. This option reduces the chance that patients will suffer serious side effects.

When Langer first presented his findings at a talk in the 1970s, "all the polymer scientists and engineers said We don't believe a word you said.'" As those scientists later repeated his work, Langer said he was able to convince them that he was right.

"One of the things I've watched is that the materials used in medicine are off-the-shelf products" grabbed by clinicians for specific applications, Langer said.

For example, the material used to make the artificial heart was originally used in ladies' girdles, Langer said. Dialysis tubes were made with material initially used for sausage casing. Langer said that while those products worked well, he felt that the application of scientific knowledge would yield significant improvements.

Langer invented a way to extend the lives of brain cancer patients. At various times, experts in the field expressed doubts that polymers could be synthesized and said that they were fragile and toxic. Langer found better synthesis methods and approached the situation as an engineering design problem, changing the way the field was viewed.

Scientists can engineer tissues

Langer's work also had a significant impact on the field of tissue engineering. Scientists can now use polymers to guide the growth of tissue cells, and researchers have already managed to replicate a human ear starting only with a few skin and cartilage cells.

Langer said that these techniques could soon be used to grow yet other organs. He showed a graphic picture of a child suffering from liver failure, noting in the past that "to help someone like this meant someone else had to die." With advances in tissue engineering, these patients would no longer be reliant on the overextended organ donation system, he said.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg it is my hope that we'll be able to progress further and that these [advances] will help alleviate suffering and prolong life," Langer said in his concluding remarks.

Langer has collected 265 patents, has published 512 articles, and has won 50 major awards.