The BioTECH Quarterly
Renowned MIT Institute Professor shares thoughts about his career
Prof. Robert Langer
Copyright Stu Rosner Photography
Professor Robert Langer is an Institute Professor well known for his research in drug delivery and tissue engineering. He is the recipient of the Draper Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in engineering, among many other awards.
BioTECH: How were your undergraduate years? What did you do to prepare for your future and your career? For example, what clubs did you join, what internships did you take?
Langer: Sure. I was an undergrad at Cornell, from í66 to í70. I donít think I did many extracurricular things as I look back on it now. We didnít have time to do much except classes. I remember one term I had five 8 oíclock classes including one on Saturday. I really wasnít involved in more than trying to get through them. My first 3 terms were hard for me. I probably shouldnít say this, but I wasnít great at going to certain classes and I sometimes had difficulty paying attention in large lectures.
Starting my second term sophomore year, I realized I was having this difficulty. So I started doing more and more problems on my own time, and I found that practicing them and working them out over and over was even more important than class lectures. And it worked. My GPA went up more than a point.
BioTECH: From what weíve read, you donít give up easily. You had your first nine grants turned down, and youíve pursued projects that people were convinced were unimportant or impossible, and yet you continued pursuing them. Have you ever encountered a project that had to be given up altogether? How do you know when to quit or keep going?
Langer: Thatís a good question. I guess to answer it we have to think of the projects I pursue and the projects that I ask people in my lab to pursue. I donít want to come up with a project and have some student get to a dead end. I like to think that Iíve been good at designing projects for students that they can get something out of.
But if Iím going to work on something, and I feel that the science is good, I would never give up. Itís just a question of time, resources, and people. I donít see why one should give up, if what youíre doing is important and if the science is sound.
BioTECH: Research requires a lot of creativity and inspiration. Where do you get your inspiration from? How do you feel about what your lab has done?
Langer: Well, I look at the impact that the people in our lab have made. I see that what weíve done has made a difference on two levels. First, there are the things that have come out of our lab: our patents, products, and scientific principles, many of which are influencing other researchers and hopefully helping many people all over.
Second, thereís all the students who have come out of our lab. I get inspiration from seeing many of them going to top places like Harvard, Yale, Penn, Columbia, etc. To me, itís very inspiring that weíre able to train the next generation of people who will train the next generation and so on. When I was younger, it was much harder to do as much good as we can today. Back then it was just a dream, and now I know we can do it.
BioTECH: : In what countries are some of your innovations and treatments you helped develop available? Does a researcher that discovers a novel treatment have control over what happens to it, and to whom it becomes available?
Langer: Well, a lot of what we do is developing new principles; there are products, as well, but a lot of what comes out of our lab are principles. Drug delivery and release and such technologies are used in the US and Europe. In the third world, weíve done work with the WHO and places like that. I believe that vaccine delivery will have an impact in the third world, but tissue engineering will not, at least not right now.
As for how much control a researcher has over his or her innovations, it might depend on what youíre doing. What we do is pretty general and basic and in that sense I wouldnít say we have that much control. Anyone can adapt our principles for specific applications.
But everyone makes a choice; thereís no reason why someone couldnít decide, well Iím going to work on malaria or diabetes, or something of that sort. In that case a researcher has control over who his or her research can benefit. But what weíve generally decided is to keep research more basic and general, not single disease focused.
BioTECH: What nations are currently the leaders in biotechnology and related fields? Why do you think this is so? How can one help these fields become more prominent worldwide?
Langer: Well, I might be prejudiced, but I think the US is the leader. To help other places, I really think one has to focus on the universities. The reason the US is doing so well is because of great universities like MIT.
In other countries, it would be important to help promote and develop research in their universities. There are places trying to do that, and weíre involved with some of them with our programs in Cambridge and Singapore, for example. Interaction between foreign universities and places like MIT would certainly be a good strategy to make biotechnology and related fields more prominent worldwide.
BioTECH: What are some of the biggest challenges that the fields of bioengineering and biomedical research are facing these days?
Langer: I suppose one challenge is health care cost. On one hand costs are high, but on the other hand, the amount of research necessary for health care is incredibly high; thereís animal trials, clinical trials, and so on. And I think you go through particular points in time where things are more difficult. Right now grants are harder, and the pay line has considerably dropped in the NIH in the last couple of years because of the Iraq war and things like that.
Of course there are also scientific challenges we face, and those are unlimited. To pick a few: gene therapy delivery, non-invasive delivery of complex drugs, targeting drugs to specific cell types; the list goes on.
BioTECH: There are some students who are unsure about the ethics of biomedical research, especially research involving embryonic stem cells. What would you say to them?
Langer: Sure. I think we should break it down to two categories: one, bioengineering in general and two, human embryonic stem cells in particular. I think bioengineering in general doesnít have too many ethical issuesónot that Iíve heard of, at least. Human embryonic stem cells, however, are a highly controversial issue.
What I would say to them is two things: Number one is that I look at the good that can come out of stem cell research. To me, that good is enormousópotential good, I should say. They have the potential to save lives. But some people say that to do that you destroy lives. On the other hand, I would say that a lot of people are using cells that are already there, which means that life isnít being destroyed. There are also people getting embryos from fertility clinics, where they would be destroyed anyhow.
And thatís my second comment: I havenít seen a similar uproar about fertility clinics. It seems to me that if there is an argument, it shouldnít start at stem cells per se; it should start in fertility clinics, where cells could be and were destroyed before it was ever possible (starting in 1998) to create human embryonic stem cells.
BioTECH: Biological Engineering is the first major at MIT in over thirty years. What made it possible for this major to be accepted?
Langer: Well, I think that on the one hand there is a change that has happened scientifically. Because of the revolution in molecular biology and cell biology in the last ten, twenty years, the biological aspects of engineering have become much more predominant and created more and more educational, scientific, and professional opportunities for students. I think thatís one of the things that made it possible.
I think another thing that made it possible is the people. People like Linda Griffith and Doug Lauffenburger ó there are others as well of course, all of whom were very committed to making this happen.
And of course the students themselves. Having a commitment from people who really want to do this played a huge role. So, thereís the need and then thereís the people making it happen. Both those things coming together are what I believe made this major possible.
BioTECH: Has your successful career and busy schedule ever interfered with family and friends? Are you able to keep a balanced lifestyle?
Langer: I think so. My wife is pretty good at telling me I need to be home at 7 PM every night to spend time with the kids and to help out. I try to do that, but the biggest problem is travel. Itís hard because any one day I get four or five invitations to be on a national or international committee or university or to give a lecture outside of MIT. These are nice places, nice people, and worthy things, but I just canít do it most of the time.
I try to help in other ways if I can; for example, I can give lectures by video, or stay in touch with someone by e-mail, things of that sort. I want to spend time with my family so I couldnít possibly accept most of these invitations.
I travel a lot already, but I try not to be gone too many nights. Anywhere I go I rarely stay there for more than one night, without my family, that is. Itís hard for me to remember in the last twelve years when Iíve been away from my family for more than 2 nights in a row. I try to make a particular point of never being gone very long, from either my family or the lab. I really value spending time with my wife and my kids and the people here.
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