Professor Robert Langer, the Career Expo keynote speaker in Boston, shares the challenges he faced when becoming an academic entrepreneur.He served as a member of the United States Food and Drug Administration’s SCIENCE Board, the FDA’s highest advisory board, from 1995 — 2002 and as its Chairman from 1999-2002.
Langer has received over 220 major awards. He is one of 4 living individuals to have received both the United States National Medal of Science (2006) and the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2011). He also received the 2002 Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers, the 2008 Millennium Prize, the world’s largest technology prize, the 2012 Priestley Medal, the highest award of the American Chemical Society, the 2013 Wolf Prize in Chemistry, the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and the 2014 Kyoto Prize. He is also the only engineer to receive the Gairdner Foundation International Award; 82 recipients of this award have subsequently received a Nobel Prize. In 2015, Dr. Langer received the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.
Our work is at the interface of biotechnology and materials science. A major focus is the study and development of polymers to deliver drugs, particularly genetically engineered proteins and DNA, continuously at controlled rates for prolonged periods of time. Our interest in drug delivery systems has extended to selective drug or substance removal systems that may circumvent toxicity. In addition, we are developing drugs that specifically inhibit the process of neovascularization that is critical to several disease processes without interfering with existing blood vessels.
My project was to isolate the first angiogenesis inhibitors. We invented microparticles that release an inhibitor of blood vessel growth to starve the growing tumors. I thought, “We’ll publish our work on microparticles, and everybody will use them clinically.” And then nobody did. Nobody used them to help people.
So, we patented them and licensed them. After about 10 years, somebody called me. They were going to work with the microspheres we developed, but they did only an experiment or two a year. I was frustrated. About a year later, Alex Klibanov, a professor at MIT, said, “Bob, we should start a company.” And so we started a little company called Enzytech. And then it merged with Alkermes, all based on these microspheres. And it ended up doing quite well.
Like his path in academia, Langer’s rise to serial entrepreneurship was paved with challenges. When he filed his first patent for the delivery system he developed in Folkman’s lab, the patent examiners, unsure of the science, refused to issue a patent, even after repeated applications. In fact, as Langer recalls, “the lawyer for the hospital said, ‘Bob, you are wasting the hospital so much money. The guy is never going to allow it.’” Langer, refusing to give up, found articles describing the novelty of delivery system to submit to the patent examiners. Six years after Langer first applied, they finally issued the patent.
The ground-breaking chemical engineer Dr Robert Langer has been awarded the QEPrize for his revolutionary advances and leadership in engineering at the interface with chemistry and medicine.