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Fri February 22, 2013
Robert Langer: Scientific Superman?
How does a scientist keep coming up with new ideas, new research, and new discoveries? Kara Miller asks one of America's foremost scientists, Robert Langer.
Robert Langer is a bit of a legend at MIT. He has more than eight hundred patents granted or pending, and has had a hand in creating twenty-five companies — and hundreds more benefit from his lab work.
When a journalist from Nature followed Langer for a day, she found herself exhausted by his pace and seemingly endless creative energy.
So what does Bob Langer see ahead in his own groundbreaking research, which impacts everything from cancer and organ replacement to, well, hair care?
Becoming a Scientist
Though having 800 patents might make him seem like a scientific superman, Langer attributes his success to the quality of his colleagues and students at MIT.
“I may be a bit of a cheerleader and a catalyst,” he explains. “But the students have been fantastic.”
Langer’s passion for science started when he was very young — his parents gave him a chemistry set when he was 10 years old, and he loved mixing different ingredients together and observing their changes. He found engineering later, in high school, when a guidance counselor told him that his math and science skills would make the career a perfect fit.
“I really thought being an engineer meant running a railroad train,” he remembers. “I didn’t know why math and science would help.”
After graduating from Cornell in the ‘70s, Langer considered putting his engineering degree to work at an oil company, like many of his peers. But the work didn’t excite him. He remembers flying back from a particularly trying interview with Exxon and thinking, “I don’t want to do that.”
“Those were really secure jobs, those were the highest paying jobs,” Langer explains. “People didn’t really understand why I wouldn’t do that.”
So he followed his passions into other kinds of work, like education and medicine. The road wasn’t easy, and Langer remembers being turned away from dozens of doors. But he finally knocked on the right one, and was hired by Judah Folkman, a pioneer in cancer research from Boston Children’s Hospital.
The Nanotech Revolution
Fast forward to the present, and Langer’s bold decision to forgo a corporate career has brought him to the forefront of nanotechnology in medicine. Because nanoparticles are so small, and yet their surface area is so large, Langer hopes that they may be able to deliver medicine directly to a tumor — rather than flooding a patient’s entire body with chemotherapy. The treatment is currently in clinical trials, and has already helped to treat over 30 patients.
“Not only can you use nanotechnology for treatment, but you can also use nanotechnology for much better diagnostics,” Langer explains. “You can have little nanoparticles that are magnetic, and you can decorate them with things that will detect certain substances in the body.”
Because nanoparticles have a large surface area, they can produce a magnetic image of substances in the body much more quickly than traditional methods. Whereas you might have to wait five days to get test results from a doctor today, Langer predicts that a nanotech test could give results in an hour.
Cancer isn’t the only area where nanoparticles are proving their efficacy — Langer is also part of an effort to use the particles as scaffolding, around which you can grow new skin or tissue. It’s a research area that could hopefully change the way we think about organ replacement, skin grafts or vocal chord repairs.
“I think we’ve seen a transformation in how drugs are developed and medical devices are created in the last 30 years,” Langer says. “With advances in genomics and other things, we’ll see more and more in the next 30 years.”
So what would Langer say to those who feel that innovation isn’t coming fast enough? Who feel that the war on cancer has stalled out? He offers simple, if not encouraging message: these things take time.
“It does, in medicine, take a tremendous amount of time,” he says. “Because you ultimately have to test with humans, and you have to go through the FDA — which you should have to go through — to make sure things are safe. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t [even] happen in 10 or 20 years.”