MIT Professor Wins 'Engineering Nobel'
By Kevin R. Lang
EDITOR IN CHIEF
Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering Robert S. Langer ScD ’74 was awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” said Langer, who learned of the award in September from the National Academy of Engineering. “It’s been very nice.”
Langer said that the NAE refers to the award as the “Nobel Prize of engineering,” and he did not disagree. “I think it’s the highest prize in engineering, so that’s probably fair,” Langer said. “That’s actually what the NAE calls it.”
Drug delivery work earns prize
The NAE awarded Langer the Draper Prize for his invention of drug delivery technologies which led to such techniques as controlled-release drug implants, ultrasound drug delivery, and the use of computer chips for drug delivery.
Langer said that the $20 billion drug delivery industry currently uses a number of different technologies, but his lab “developed a lot of principles, and they’re used by a lot of people.” He added that he hoped his lab’s current work with tissue engineering might someday garner the same sort of recognition that the drug delivery technology has earned.
He said he did not yet have any specific plans for the $500,000 prize money. “I’m sure my wife and children will figure that out,” Langer said. In 1998, he won the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the world's largest single prize for invention and innovation.
The Draper prize was awarded at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 19, attended by renowned engineers, scientists, and business leaders.
Langer earned doctorate at MIT
After earning his doctorate in Chemical Engineering in 1974, Langer did his postdoctoral research in the lab of famed cancer researcher Dr. Judah Folkman. Langer’s research focused on delivering large molecules, such as cancer drugs, using plastics previously thought to be impermeable to such substances.
Langer’s discovery was received with both criticism and skepticism at first, but the pharmaceutical industry took notice and began using his techniques. At the time, one of his inventions, a biodegradable polymer, was the first FDA-approved brain cancer treatment in twenty years.
Success extends far beyond MIT
Although he continues to teach such classes as Biotechnology and Engineering (5.22J), Langer’s work reaches far beyond the MIT classroom. He has written some 700 papers, and he has 400 patents that are licensed or sub-licensed to more than 80 companies, some of which were founded based on his ideas. In addition, more than 80 of his former students are faculty at universities around the world.
The NAE established the Draper Prize with an $8 million endowment from MIT’s Draper Laboratory. According to the NAE, “It is awarded for innovative engineering achievement or a body of work extending over a period of years. The work must demonstrate a proven innovation that contributes to human welfare and freedom.”
The prize was awarded in the past for such landmark inventions as the Internet, fiber optics, satellite communications, the FORTRAN programming language, and the jet engine.