By Rich Soll, Senior Vice President, Research Service Division, WuXi AppTec (@richsollwx)
Known as the “Thomas Edison of Biomedicine,” professor Robert Langer is one of the most highly cited individuals in history, and founder of more than 40 biotech companies. While he is widely regarded for his contributions to medicine and biotechnology, one of his proudest achievements and legacies is inspiring the next generation of scientists through the more than 800 students, post-docs and researchers who have passed through his lab. They all carry the lessons learned and insights of being a Langer graduate – think big, make an impact, do transformative R&D, foster entrepreneurship, and build bridges.
Langer’s impact is indeed yielding multiples in returns – nearly half of his students have gone into academics and many of his lab members have been elected to the National Academy of Engineering or to the National Academy of Medicine. Nearly 40 of them have been named in Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35.
Langer relishes in his responsibility to work with students and provide mentorship. This has been a characteristic trait for more than four decades, while simultaneously tackling big issues in biomedical research, breaking down complex problems into simpler, actionable plans, and creating breakthrough science.
Langer – a chemical engineer and a pioneer in the fields of controlled-release drug delivery, medical devices, drug development and tissue engineering runs the largest academic biomedical engineering laboratory in the world with an annual budget of $17.3 million at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Earlier this year, he was named the #1 Master of the Bench, Medicine Maker “Power List,” which honors scientists and researchers whose late-night lab work lays the foundations for new therapeutics.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Langer, who is highly motivated by “impactful” science and research, as well as by the pure joy of teaching and mentoring his group.
“It is an interesting question – why should my students be any more successful than others? It’s going to sound simplistic, but I really just want people to have happy lives; it’s part of the culture in my lab,” Langer says. “Considering that large number of people that have gone through my lab, over 300 of them have become professors; quite a few of them have started companies; quite a few have become chief scientific officers of companies; they’re deans of colleges, and presidents of colleges. It’s not a science accomplishment, but when I look back at our lab, I know I’m prejudiced but it’s hard for me to think of any other lab where the people have done as well as ours has in terms of the alumni.”
Curiously, after four decades of a storied academic career, Langer is not even close to moving over to the corporate side. Yet, he couples cutting edge science with a dose of entrepreneurialism. I asked Langer if there was a defining moment in his career development which crystallized his philosophy.
“Working with Dr. Judah Folkman – he was a visionary person – he had this idea that if you could stop blood vessels from growing you could stop cancer,” he says. “He had lots of big ideas, and in fact, a lot of people did not agree with him, but to me he was a wonderful role model, especially in terms of tackling big problems. The company thing came later because writing papers alone was not going to make the impact that I wanted to have. I needed an eye towards commercialization so that we could translate these discoveries from the lab into commercial products that address unmet needs.”
Langer has turned his curiosity into a pipeline of possibilities. “I love not just working on one idea. I sometimes have a lot of ideas, and I like to think that our lab is kind of an idea factory; I like that environment. In a sense, I’ve been able to have my cake and eat it too,” he says.
In Langer’s lab, about 100 scientists and post-docs are working on the development of polymers to deliver drugs, particularly genetically engineered proteins, DNA and RNAi, continuously at controlled rates for prolonged periods of time. The list of impactful science that was born in Langer’s lab is a long one, including the first mechanism to deliver chemotherapy directly to a tumor.
“We’re always looking at how we can make the biggest impact with the skill sets that we have. In the early days, it was doing things that had never been done before that we thought would open whole new areas, like could we deliver larger molecules for the first time? Or, could we create new tissues and organs from polymers and cells?,” Langer says. “Today, we’re doing a lot of work, for example, with the Gates Foundation, trying to bring novel medicines and novel vaccines and new ways of dealing with nutrition to the developing world. About a billion people now suffer from malnutrition; we’ve developed I think some really novel ways of giving people nutrition that I think will be transformative.”
One project that Microchips Biotech (which started out of Langer’s and Michael Cima’s lab) is working on with the Gates Foundation is a personally controlled birth control chip that can be implanted into a woman’s body – in the hip, inside arms or even beneath the back – and can be used for 16 years. The World Health Organization includes birth control on its List of Essential Medicines, a list of medicines the United Nations believes is necessary to improve global health.
Looking out into the horizon, Langer mentions advances in nanotechnology, regenerative medicine and tissue engineering as fields that will have great impact on future global medicines and treatments. For now, he and his colleagues are studying applications of polymeric delivery systems, including the development of effective long-term delivery systems for insulin, anti-cancer drugs, growth factors, gene therapy agents, and vaccines. They are also synthesizing new biodegradable polymeric delivery systems which will ultimately be absorbed by the body; creating new approaches for delivering drugs such as proteins and genes across complex barriers in the body such as the blood-brain barrier, the intestine, the lung, and the skin; researching new ways to create tissue and organs, including creating new polymer systems for tissue engineering; creating new biomaterials with shape memory or surface switching properties; and conducting stem cell research, including controlling their growth and differentiation.
About 63% of the lab’s funding comes from foundations and companies. While private foundations, philanthropists, and companies are helping to fill the funding gaps in U.S. academic and research institutions, Langer is keen on the American government continuing its vital role in backing basic research.
“It’s a concern,” the Albany, New York native says. “We want to make sure that basic research keeps getting funding in the United States; I am concerned that young people continue to be attracted to science and technology because you can do so much good with it and it’s really a driving force of the economy, and it can make the world a better place.”
As for Langer, he says he will continue his role in inspiring future scientists and entrepreneurs.
“I want my students to get good jobs where they can have an impact, and I think the two big areas are in academics and start-ups,” he says. “Don’t do what’s going to make the most money; don’t do necessarily what your parents are telling you to do. Follow your passion and do something you love”.
His advice to first-time entrepreneurs: “I think being an entrepreneur is very exciting – you can take your ideas and get them out to the world. It’s not easy, but I think there are a number of key elements – one certainly in the biotech area is making sure that you have good intellectual property. Number two is having a great team of scientists, technologies, and business people. And then create an environment to really have a great culture. You’re going to run into all sorts of obstacles, so don’t give up. Just dream big and never give up.”