Cancer and cartilage: the engineering approach to biomaterials and biotechnology

Dr. Robert Langer is living proof that engineers can change the world. In addition to being one of the most prolific and most-cited engineers in history, he has developed medical solutions that are so innovative and remarkable they sound like science fiction.

Langer has spent most of his career seeking groundbreaking solutions in the areas of cancer prevention and treatment, controlled drug delivery systems and tissue engineering. He is also an institute professor at MIT, and works with many graduate and post-doctoral students on his team.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the next big thing in academia that will change the world’?” Langer said.

In his lecture, Langer discussed the evolution of one of his most famous projects: an angiogenesis inhibitor that halts tumor growth. The journey involved inventing a polymer that could be implanted near a tumor where it could deliver medicine where it was needed without having to expose the rest of the body to high levels of the harsh medication. Though the process involved Langer going to butcher shops for old cow bones and experimenting with a lot of animal eyeballs, the end product was a highly successful treatment that is now used by dozens of pharmaceutical companies around the globe.

Langer said that to create great things, engineers need to take inspiration from existing products.

“The engineering approach is to take things that already exist and make them do things they’ve never done before.”

Among Langer’s other 800 patents, he developed an embeddable microchip that could be remote controlled to deliver dosages of medicine. This device is even intended, in the future, to sync with smartphones. Langer has also made significant contributions to the field of tissue engineering. He and his team have successfully grown human skin, ears, noses and hope to someday grow entire organs that can be used as transplants.

The ability to grow human cartilage has many implications for the medical field. One example used by Dr. Langer involved soldiers who return home missing ears, noses and other body parts.

However, though Langer has made life-changing discoveries in bioengineering, it was sometimes difficult to help others catch his vision. For example, even though Langer’s drug delivery system for brain tumors is now widely used, it took 17 years and several rejections before he proved to the medical community that it was effective.

“I admire people like him who have success in their field,” said Nima Momtahan, a graduate student in chemical engineering. “Dr. Langer was my mentor’s mentor. He has done incredible things.”

Langer gave some parting words of advice to graduate students who aspire to enter the field of medical engineering.

“Learn the fundamentals of engineering, biology and chemistry,” Langer said. “Work in a lab if you can. Come to lectures like this when you get the chance. Look for summer jobs. It’s my hope that this is just the tip of the iceberg, that the ideas we’ve gone over today are just the start.”

Langer was named one of the 100 most important people by Time Magazine and CNN. His lecture was part of the annual Izzat-Christensen lecture series, which is jointly hosted by the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.


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