MIT Professor Robert Langer poses with the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize during its award ceremony in Helsinki.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MIKKO STIG/LEHTIKUVA)
As part of an initiative to encourage multilateral cooperation among scientists, the US State Department recently sent a science envoy to visit Denmark, Italy, Estonia and Israel. Prof. Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology arrived in Israel last week as the US envoy, and is the world’s most cited chemical engineer, who has filed more than 1,350 patents and written over 1,400 papers.
Between lectures at universities and leading an entrepreneurship workshop for biomedical and bioengeering start-ups, Langer sat with The Jerusalem Post and spoke about his career and hopes for future research.
“I like to think that the work we do changes people’s health and improves their lives,” Langer began.
Asked what it is like being the most cited engineer in history, he appeared modest and insisted that the credit should instead go to his students. Proudly, he said many of them branched out from their studies at MIT, founding their own biotech start-up companies or bringing their research to other universities.
Research can be utilized to improve and further other scientists’ understandings in a certain field, allowing them to build upon their own discoveries.
Langer’s research has had a far-reaching impact. Some fields he has worked in include angiogenesis – ways of stopping and controlling blood vessels that have led to new treatments for cancer and blindness; tissue engineering – the combining of materials and cells to create new tissues and organs, (including using it to create organs on a microchip), leading to artificial skin for burn victims; and nanotechnology in drug delivery systems, or ways of administering medicines to parts of the body that reduces side-effects and in many cases, lengthens life.
Langer’s work in tissue engineering, and specifically in bioengineered synthetic polymers, has opened up a larger field in bioengineering which has revolutionized medicine. He explained that this idea originated 40 years ago when a friend and transplant surgeon at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital noted that due to long waiting lists for transplants, children who had experienced liver failure often died while waiting for a donor. The two discussed ways to combine materials and cells to make scaffolds, thereby creating new tissues.
His work on delivering chemotherapy that is administered directly to a tumor’s site opened doors in treating particular cancers, including brain cancer and spinal cancer. In treating brain cancer, partial lobotomies – removal of parts of the brain – have been used in the past, but proved detrimental to the patient. Langer said that his research to create “arrowheads” – that direct a medicine towards the tumor – is very challenging and require an in-depth understanding of the biology or biochemistry of these cells. The second obstacle, he added, is “kind of like in a pac-man game, [these particles] are also going through parts of the body that like to ingest these nanoparticles. You need to put ‘disguise’ molecules on them so that these ‘pac-man-like’ macrophages don’t gobble them up.”
Asked of his impression of Israeli biomedical and bioengineering research, Langer said: “I think that Israel is outstanding.” Many of his former students are deans or professors at universities and colleges here. When asked about the far-reaching research of MIT, he quipped that he thinks his former students have brought MIT here. He added that a major factor of success in biomedical fields in Israel, is the growing entrepreneurship, where the theoretical translates to the practical.
He said that he hopes that more Israeli children will pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-related careers, adding, “I just think that it’s a wonderful field. Aeronautics or space, or bioengeering, I think that it’s important to learn the fundamentals but after college, to discover how they can use this knowledge and apply it to have an impact on the world.”
When asked about the relatively small number of women who pursue these careers, Langer supports and would like to see more women entering these fields. He mentioned several well-known female scientists and former students of his, who started at MIT and later branched out to Israel, including: Shulamit Levenberg (dean of biomedical engineering at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, ranked as one of the top 50 scientists in Scientific American); Prof. Smadar Cohen of Ben-Gurion University, ranked as the 11th most important woman in Israel); Prof. Edith Mathiowitz who teaches medical science and engineering at Brown University; and Prof. Sharon Gerecht at John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering.
He added that he has met “some great examples of Israeli women pursuing science,” adding that his own daughter has combined both aspects of science and business and is a social director of business at Biogen.
While today there are many female scientists at American universities, that has not always been the case, he noted. “I started out at Cornell, as an engineer in 1966, and in that year out of 600 people in my engineering class, only four were women. This year it stands at 50%.” He added that “it’s really important to have good female role models and to encourage women to pursue these types of careers.”
“It’s an honor to be chosen by the US government to represent the US,” the professor concluded. “Coming to Israel is always special for me. I have so many students who are in the faculty here. I think it’s important to develop really good science collaborations [between our countries] as much as we can.”