Revolutionizing Medicine: An Interview with Dr. Robert S. Langer

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Revolutionizing Medicine: An Interview with Dr. Robert S. Langer, Founder of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine.

  • What led you to pursue a career in chemical and biomedical engineering?

Well, chemical engineering, it’s almost embarrassing to say. In high school, I was good at math and science and not very good at anything else. So my dad and my guidance counselor said, well, you should major in engineering. And I really didn’t even know what it was. But anyhow, I ended up going to Cornell. I majored in engineering in my first year. I didn’t do very well in most of the courses other than chemistry, but you had to pick what you would be. And so since I was in engineering school, I picked chemical engineering because it was the only thing I liked. So that’s really how I ended up doing that. But, as I progressed to undergraduate, graduate school, and so forth, I still wasn’t really sure about what I really wanted to do.

I was interested and always thought biology was interesting, even though I hadn’t taken much of it. And, after a Ph.D., most of my friends went to oil companies and I wasn’t excited about that. I was looking for something that I could do that I felt would help people. And I looked into a lot of things. I ended up doing a postdoc, which was very unusual in 1974 for a chemical engineer, because I got very good job offers at oil companies. But I ended up working in a surgery department at Boston Children’s Hospital. I think I was the only engineer in the entire hospital and, to me, it was almost being like a kid in a candy shop. I could see that engineering or chemical engineering might offer possible solutions to many things that I saw in medicine. So that’s what got me into it: the postdoc I did at Boston Children’s Hospital in Harvard.

  • Who were your biggest mentors throughout your career?

Well, when I was little, I suppose my dad, he’d play math games and my dad and mom got me these Gilbert sets, chemistry sets, erector sets, microscope sets, but that was when I was really young. Later on, my biggest mentor was Judah Folkman. He was the man that hired me at Boston Children’s Hospital, and he was the surgeon-in-chief there. He was a very visionary guy. And he was also somebody who had a lot of big ideas and a lot of people told him that they would never work, and he got criticized a lot. But ultimately, he ended up being right. But I think seeing his example and that he was a wonderful person was a great experience for me and he was a great mentor.

  • What inspired you to pursue tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, especially at a time when the field was just beginning?

Well, the way that started for me was actually when I worked in Dr. Folkman’s lab. This goes back to the mid-seventies. One of the people I met there was another surgeon, Jay Vacanti. And he and I worked on this problem of trying to stop blood vessels from growing. But when he got done, he became a transplant surgeon and ultimately head of the Liver Transplant Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. He and I were good friends, talk from time to time and he would be treating patients that were dying, little babies of liver failure. And I remember he started asking me, is there any other way rather than doing a transplant, is there any way that he and I could come up with a way to build organs from scratch, that could help children with liver failure? And, of course, more broadly help lots of people. So that was because of him, that we started doing this a long time ago. And that’s kind of how we got started.

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Dr. Langer’s thoughts on science and medicine

  • How did you come up with the idea of developing an angiogenesis inhibitor to inhibit tumor growth via blood vessels?

Well, Judah Folkman, who was the surgeon in chief, had this broad idea of if you could stop blood vessels from growing, that might be a new way to treat cancer and other diseases. People were very skeptical of that. So when he hired me in 1974, that’s what he wanted me to prove, that this concept was correct. And in isolating the first blood vessel inhibitors, one of the key things to do was to create a “bioassay”. There had been no really good way to study blood vessel growth. So one of the keys to that was developing tiny little particles, micro or nanoparticles, that could deliver large molecule fractions. And all the blood vessel inhibitors that we were thinking about possibly studying were large molecule like peptides, proteins, nucleic acids, and forth.

So I spent a lot of time trying to do that. Eventually, we were successful and in 1976 we published two papers, one in Nature, which was the first nano or microparticles that could deliver large molecule, including nucleic acids. And then we used that system to deliver these large molecule. I isolated over a hundred large molecule. And we showed that you could stop blood vessels from growing that way. That was published in Science. Now, these were just scientific studies. It took and, would take many, many years before they would become real drugs or, or drug delivery systems that would help patients. But eventually, they did.

  • How long did it take for the first angiogenesis inhibitor to be approved and implemented in patients, and what were the major milestones and challenges in the process?

A long time. So the Science paper and the first angiogenesis inhibitor was in 1976. It took 28 years before the first one ever would get approved. And that was great work by people at Genentech, like Napoleon Ferrara. And, it would cost billions of dollars in research, and clinical trials by them. In drug delivery systems we had a relationship with Takeda, where they would come to the lab and they developed the first FDA-approved drug delivery system that could release a large molecule, Lupron Depot. And that came out in 1989, so that was 13 years later. But of course, even tinier particles would take longer. And of course, the big impact most recently comes from another company I helped start, Moderna, where you’d use different nanoparticles again. So a lot of times the compositions are changed and so forth, but of course, those nanoparticles have been used for vaccines all over the world.

  • What inspired you to enter the industry and become the founder of several companies, and who were your mentors and supporters that helped you along the way?

What happened was I wanted to see the things I did in the lab get used. We published the stuff, and we were fortunate enough to get it in good journals, like Science and Nature. But I thought people would just use it. And I don’t mean just academically. I mean academically it is used and our work was certainly cited a lot, but I wanted it to help patients. And, for 10 years nobody seemed to care. But finally, a couple of large companies did. And they gave me grants and consulting fees and they started to work on it, but then they just gave up. So one of my good friends, Alex Klibanov, a professor at MIT at the time, said, “Bob, we should start our own company”.

So we did it. And, four of my students started there and, it had its ups and downs, but ultimately they did pretty well. And, that company is part of it. They’ve got all kinds of different microspheres that can deliver different molecule to treat diseases like preventing opioid addiction, treating diabetes, type two diabetes, schizophrenia, and others. So, that’s how it got started. And then I just kept doing it.

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Exploring the Future: Dr. Langer on AI and its Impact on Health and Science

  • In what ways do you think AI can be effectively utilized in the fields of chemical and biomedical engineering, given the hype around this technology in recent times?

Well, I think AI is very important, but I also think it’s hyped to a large degree. I mean, to do it, you really need to do it right. And I’m not speaking as an AI expert, I’m not, but I talk to plenty of people who are. You need really good data sets that you can compare against each other. In other words, a lot of people just think you can take literature data and compare one paper and another, and all of a sudden get an answer`. Except you won’t. Or at least it won’t be very good. But I think if you have large data sets where every single thing is done the same way, very high purity and everything else, well, then you can draw some conclusions about different things. And I think it has a lot of potential in many areas, in drug development, diagnosis, and so forth.

  • Could you describe some of the current research projects and future goals in your lab, particularly with regard to drug delivery systems and their applications in the developing world?

Well, we have over a hundred people working in the lab. I’d say a lot of it is involved in better drug delivery systems. We’re doing a tremendous amount with the Gates Foundation, to try to create new medicines and new delivery systems for the developing world, for example. They’ll be useful, I think, for our world too. But, just to give some examples, a lot of people are malnourished and we don’t get enough vitamin A or iron, and part of the problem is that when they put these nutrients in different things they eat like bullion and, they get destroyed. And we have come up in our lab and our team with ways to encapsulate all these different nutrients in a way they don’t degrade. And yet when they get eaten, they’ll still come out a hundred percent. 

Also vaccination, right now everybody has to get vaccinated many times. But in the developing world, getting boosters and so forth people don’t come back that often. In fact, they’re not doing such a good job in our country either. But with Ana Jaklenec we have come up with a way of giving a single injection, and it’s what we call a “self-boosting vaccine”. So one injection can actually give you the equivalent of 12 injections over a period of time, so you wouldn’t have to come back. We’re also working on pills right now so normally, if you took a pill, it wouldn’t last for more than a day, but we have come up with a way to make them last, for two weeks or a month, or longer.

This has been done by Gio Traverso, who was a fellow with me and now a Professor at MIT, and some of the people he and I work with. We are also working on lots of other things in drug delivery. We are working on new kinds of nanoparticles for different types of genetic therapy, whether it be CRISPR or RNA or other stuff like that. We are also working on a lot of tissue engineering projects including organs and tissues on a chip, which could greatly reduce animal testing and human testing. Examples of that, are a GI tract and a brain on a chip. Alice Stanton is working with me and Li Huei Tsai and she actually made this incredible brain on a chip, and more organs that we have been working on include an artificial pancreas. So there are really a large number of projects in the lab. And of course, my next goal as we make progress on these, is to, again, get them to patients or get them to help in drug development and things like that.

  • In your opinion, what are some specific steps that the US should take to maintain its competitiveness in science and medicine, and how do you think these steps could be implemented effectively?

Well, I think funding for basic research is one thing that’s very important. I also think there’s been talk about, in certain cases, giving patents up or weakening the patent system. I think that’s a terrible idea. Abraham Lincoln who was our 16th President actually made the point that of the three most important things in history, the patent system was one of them. And that’s part of what made the United States great. So I think weakening the patent system or giving patents up, that’s the last thing you want to do.

Also, there are a lot of things that are going on, about price controls, about criticizing companies for charging too much. I understand people’s intentions and politicians’ intentions on that, but I think that they just simply don’t understand. They make an argument, well, it doesn’t cost very much to manufacture a drug. That may or may not be true, but it costs billions, as Tufts has pointed out many times, to get that drug through the clinic and get it used. Similarly, I think what they don’t realize is that investors have a choice, right? They could invest in the next Facebook, which is not capital intensive, or they could invest in the next Moderna. My personal feeling is I’d rather see more Moderna’s, creating medicines that’ll save the world than more Facebooks. Nonetheless, there are a lot of politicians that are talking about laws that will clearly favor the next Facebooks and, make sure investors don’t fund things that’ll save people’s lives. So, those are some of the things that I think, could make a difference.

  • What are some valuable life lessons or skills that you have learned as a scientist that has had a positive impact on your personal or professional life beyond the realm of science?

Well, I think being a scientist, makes you want to make decisions based on science. I mean, just to pick an example, when I was chair of the FDA Science Board, which was the highest FDA advisory board. But, you can make medical decisions based on politics, based on religion, or based on science. And I think always, in my opinion, you want to make them on science. So I think the more you make science-based decisions by using facts rather than making things up. That’s really important.

  • How do you believe scientific information can be made more accessible to the general public, and what strategies do you think could be implemented to increase public engagement and interest in scientific topics?

Well, that’s a great question! And, I think there’s a saying that a society gets what it celebrates, I’ll just give you an example. When I won the National Medal of Science, which was supposed to be the highest United States scientific honor. I remember getting calls from people from India, that it was on the front page of some of their newspapers. However, in the US, newspapers seem to not care. But if you’re an athlete or a singer, or a movie star, that gets a lot of attention. So I think that the news media probably could be helpful. On the other hand, I understand the predicament. They want to sell newspapers and sell stories. So I think that it is challenging.

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Dr. Langer’s advice for young scientists on making a lasting impact in Biomedical Engineering

  • What advice do you have for young scientists looking to make an impact in the field of biomedical engineering?

Well, I think it depends on what stage. If you’re an undergraduate, and maybe even a graduate student, the most important thing to me is to understand fundamentals. Really get a good grasp of fundamentals, of science, the basics. If you’re starting a career in industry, I think you want to pick something that you’re passionate about. And I’d say that’s also true in academics. So whatever you do, pick something that you’re passionate about and where you feel you can make a big impact. And don’t be afraid to fail.

  • What are some of the key concepts, skills, or lessons that you learned during your undergraduate studies, and how have they contributed to your current day-to-day work and professional development?

Well, I think the fundamentals actually, and also maybe how to think critically and scientifically.

  • Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today

My pleasure. Good luck with everything.

  • Where can we go to learn more?

Google Scholar


See the full interview with Dr. Langer here: