Bob Langer: Quest of Curiosity
700 Papers ... 13 Books ... 80 Academic Honors ... One Man
By James Camp
Robert Langer is one of those rare people who seems to do exactly what he wants to.
His lab is dubbed the “Langer Corporation” for its success in the fledgling biotech industry. He tackles problems ranging from finding new ways to deliver drugs and biomolecules to building tissues in the lab, and his research staff comes from such diverse fields as solid state physics, clinical medicine, and chemical engineering. According to Langer, “whatever it takes to solve the problem, that’s what we’ll do.”
And solve problems he has. Langer holds around 380 patents, licensed to almost 80 companies. He estimates 30 products, either on the market or in the FDA-approval pipeline, have come from technologies developed in his lab.
Many of these products involve new types of biomaterials, beginning with porous plastic implants for drug release, and working their way into diverse fields such as DNA delivery for gene therapy (designing a polymer that acts like a virus), “intelligent” drug release (a silicon-chip system that releases precise quantities of drugs on pre-programmed schedules), and cellular systems (integrating cells with his new materials to build tissues or bioreactor systems). Along the way, Langer helped to invent the twin fields of controlled drug delivery and tissue engineering.
While best known for these highly marketable engineering successes, Langer insists on a commitment to academia as well. Langer began his academic life as a chemical engineering student at Cornell, then went on to do his doctoral research in the same field here at MIT. After doing postdoctoral work in a medical research lab at Harvard, Langer returned to MIT as a professor and has spent most of his career blurring the lines between engineering and medicine.
Langer sees himself as a dedicated undergraduate educator as well. Together with chemistry professor John Essigmann, he created the “Biotechnology and Engineering” course (5.22J/10.02J), and himself created and taught two Integrated Chemical Engineering (10.491) modules on drug delivery. His ratings don’t let his reputation down either, with consistent student evaluations in the high 6s.
The Man and His Research
Three decades ago, before Langer began work on developing new materials, physicians would use any material on hand that would seem to fit the bill: mattress stuffing for breast implants and ladies’ girdle fabric for artificial hearts were two of the more ridiculous examples. Langer’s first major insight was that materials science and polymer chemistry could be used to design materials suited exactly to the purpose at hand: “We ask the question, what do you want in a biomaterial?”
The first application was to build polymers that would allow controlled release of “essentially anything” in a biological environment.
But according to Langer, polymers “just happened.” He was working with Dr. Judah Folkman at Harvard on trying to find a new way to stop blood vessels from growing (angiogenesis) in a tumor and hit upon the idea of using a porous plastic to release anti-angiogenic factors. This idea has led to a variety of products both inside the Langer group and in the medical world at large, from anti-cancer brain chemotherapy wafers (used to treat TV’s Dr. Green on ER) to implant materials that secrete factors encouraging tissue regeneration.
Langer did not stop there, however. Together with Dr. Joseph Vacanti at Massachusetts General Hospital, Langer started working to combine living cells and biodegradable polymers in an effort to build tissues in the lab. These structures could then be implanted in a patient, and after the plastic backbone had dissolved away, what would remain would be living, functional tissue. Thus the new field of tissue engineering began to emerge; and today, scores of research labs and startup companies across the country are currently in a race to produce marketable tissue-engineered products.
Another recent Langer lab innovation, designed by researcher John Santini in collaboration with Professor Michael Cima, is a chip with microscopic wells containing measured doses of drugs, biomolecules, or even perfumes that can be released by applying very small currents. While initial experiments have used small numbers of wells and simple release patterns, Langer and his collaborators predict that these devices could someday be used to run complex drug-release programs that are difficult with pills and impossible with passive-release systems like porous plastics. They could even incorporate biosensors to respond to biological changes with different release patterns.
This kind of dreaming seems typical of Robert Langer. When asked where his research is going, he rattles off a list of possible projects. Intelligent drug delivery that would control both amount and location of a drug; noninvasive glucose testing using ultrasound; gene therapy by designing artificial viruses that deliver healthy genes to stem cells; control of cell diffusion in medical implants -- and on and on.
He even mentions a possible collaboration with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences to control the weather. His only criterion for a project, he says, is that it be done in a reasonable amount of time and have a reasonable impact.
Life in Langer’s Lab
Langer maintains an “open book policy” (just put your name in his appointment book and he will see you), a system which provides each of his students and researchers equal opportunity to reach him (and he answers his e-mail almost as promptly as undergrads).
Langer is a joint faculty member in three MIT graduate programs: Chemical Engineering (Course 10), Health Science and Technology (HST) and Bioengineering (BEH). Even so, Langer draws students from an even greater variety of departments, with ten different disciplines represented in his lab. When asked which of his three departments he feels most at home in, Langer responded “all of them.”
“The role of a graduate student is to learn,” he said, pointing out that the main difference between a graduate student and an undergraduate is that grad students have to learn to ask their own questions before they can go about answering them. “My goal for a graduate student is to make that transition,” he said, noting that successful researchers are “able to ask important questions.”
Langer wants his graduate students to enjoy research and to get exposed to different ideas, and thinks that his lab is an excellent environment for both purposes. He also believes that grad students should have the opportunity to train and supervise other students, and so he encourages them to take on undergraduate research assistants. The net result is a very functional laboratory that produces professors at top-notch engineering schools, engineers at biotechnology companies, and a good number of startup biotech firms.
Undergraduates in the Langer lab always report to a supervising grad student or postdoc, usually on a sub-project of their supervisor’s research. Some work as many as three or four years in the lab and “hopefully get a paper or a patent out of it.” Perhaps unusual for an MIT professor, Langer’s open-book policy extends even to his undergraduate researchers. While he encourages them to discuss most issues with their supervising graduate student, he is willing to sit down and talk about research with just about anyone.
Perhaps the one drawback of the Langer lab is that its success has made it very popular. “We get a huge number of applicants,” says Langer, citing around two thousand requests a year for graduate and postdoctoral research positions in his lab. With that kind of competition to get in, it’s really no surprise that so much innovation happens in Langer’s lab.