Humboldtians in Focus

The Man Who Wants to Change the World

By Louis Saul

“I should like my research to change the world.” This is not exactly a modest statement. But if you look at the list of Robert Langer’s achievements, his awards and string of patents, you cannot help concluding that the 2008 Max Planck Research Award Winner takes his intentions seriously.

Robert Langer
Robert Langer
Foto: Jay Reed

For years, Langer has been one of the most productive researchers in biotechnology, not only in terms of his work at the three American academies, but also according to his ranking in Forbes Magazine’s popular VIP lists. There is probably no-one else in his discipline with a comparable network, neither in academia, nor in industry. His decisively practice-orientated approach has turned the Langer Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA, into the biggest biotech lab in the world, and one of the leading think tanks for medical research.

It all began with the campaign against cancer. Back in the 1970s, working together with Judah Folkman, the idea of fighting tumours from within by delivering active agents directly into the cancer cells started to emerge. It promised to reduce the dreadful side-effects of chemotherapy significantly. But it also required special macro-molecules which deliver exactly the right amount of their therapeutic freight to exactly the right place at exactly the right time – a concept which initially only convinced a few colleagues but which proved extremely effective. What materials researcher Langer did was to develop specific polymers which are capable of carrying out these tasks. To some extent, the dosage of active agents can even be controlled remotely using ultrasonics or magnetic fields. Today, some of the nanoparticles in use are a hundred times smaller than a human cell.

Polymer lattices with liver cells.
Polymer lattices with liver cells.
Foto: Langer Lab / MIT

All the many patents that formed the basis for this cancer therapy gained Langer a place in the American National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. And his investigations into biodegradable polymers opened up a whole new field of medicine.

Thousands of people die every year because there are not enough organs donated for transplantations. The cultivation of organs would solve this problem. At the Langer Lab the approach being adopted is to colonise and multiply certain cells or stem cells in the form of a liver, for example, on a specially developed, biodegradable “scaff old” of polymers. The new organ grows in a controlled environment. The scaffold provides the cells with nutrition, disposes of the residue and finally decomposes itself. This clever combination of properties in the polymer scaffold has been developed by Langer’s team. The end result is an organ ready to be transferred, ideally, one created from the recipient’s own cells and thus highly compatible. Langer envisages similar prospects for bones and bone marrow. “During this century, engineered tissue and organs of this kind will replace many parts of the human body and save thousands of lives,” the researcher is convinced.

Microscopic view of a microsphere for controlled delivery, divided in half.
Microscopic view of a
microsphere for controlled
delivery, divided in half.
Foto: Langer Lab / MIT

However, when he and his colleagues first published their experiments involving engineered organs in the mid 1990s, the result was a PR disaster. On the back of a mouse, the scientists had grown a human ear from bovine cartilage cells. The picture went round the world and seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears about chimeras. Langer admits it was a catastrophe in PR terms but defends the science behind it as excellent. For him, the value to the patient comes first and foremost.

The fact that Langer develops so much of his work in close cooperation with industry causes some colleagues to look askance at Cambridge. But Langer sees it as an important way of boosting and expediting his work. His results reach patients faster this way. And this is important because Langer wants his research to change the world a bit.

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Louis Saul Louis Saul

Louis Saul works first and foremost as an author and director for television and corporate films.

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