Robert Langer is a well known researcher in the field of nanomedicine. Weirdly not included in a listing of prominent nanoscientists in a series by Slate.com writers (my Oct. 7, 2016 posting), it seems the English are making up for this oversight. Amy Fleming in an Oct. 17, 2016 article for the Guardian tells Langer’s story in the context of his recent award of the £1m Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering (Note: Links have been removed),
Robert Langer seems incredibly well adjusted for a man with transatlantic jetlag. And, for that matter, for someone who struggled for years to get his pioneering work in drug delivery accepted by the scientific establishment. As a young professor, his first nine research grant applications were turned down. Once, at a formal dinner in the early 80s, a senior colleague blew smoke in his eyes and told him to find another job.
And yet here he is, a good-natured nanotechnology trailblazer, swooping into the UK for duties associated with having won the £1m Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering. His work has improved the lives of 2 billion people and counting. He has collected awards from two US presidents, as well as the Queen. He has more than 1,000 patents on the go, and 30 companies have spun out from his vast lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the largest biomedical lab in the world). At 68, he is still the future.
… the huge range of his research interests. There’s contraceptive microchip implants; a gel to repair damaged vocal cords; spinal cord repair tissue; an invisible “second skin” for conditions such as eczema (with the cosmetic side effect of rendering skin smooth and elastic); cutting-edge anti-frizz haircare; and what Langer calls “super-long-acting capsules or pills, that would last a week, a month, or even a year”. …
Fleming describes some of Langer’s innovations in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),
Commonly, when pharmaceuticals enter the body, they are coated in synthetic substances called polymers. These allow effective amounts of the drug to reach the body, slowly enough so as not to cause toxicity. Until Langer came along, this controlled method only worked for simpler, small-molecule drugs. Sophisticated large-molecule drugs, that can target diseases such as cancer, diabetes and mental illness, were too big to pass through polymers. “People wouldn’t think you could walk through a wall either,” he says. “But we built all these tortuous channels in what was the equivalent of the wall so somebody could get through, but they get through very slowly, like driving through London in rush hour.”
Langer also designed biologically tolerable polymer pellets – nanopellets, he calls them – that enable drugs to be implanted directly into cancer tumours. This enabled Langer and the cancer researcher Judah Folkman to isolate the first vascular inhibitors, which stop new blood vessels feeding tumours. “We thought it could be a new way of treating cancer,” Langer says, “and it’s become that. Drugs such as Avastin [bevacizumab] and Eylea [aflibercept] are based, in part, on our early research.” He also created new polymers that could dissolve like a bar of soap and release drugs in a very controlled way over months to years. And he and neurosurgeon Henry Brem developed implants (called gliadel wafers) that could be implanted in the brain to treat brain cancer. Trials in 1996 saw a 63% survival rate against just 19% in the control group.
If you have the time, it’s well worth reading Fleming’s article in its entirety.