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Q&A - Robert Langer: The Life of Risk-Taking

Few honors have eluded Robert Langer since he turned aside job offers from industry in favor of doing cancer research after earning his Ph.D. Langer, an Institute Professor at MIT, has invented groundbreaking ways to deliver drugs in the body. He holds more than 600 patents and has authored 900 papers. Langer’s biomedical engineering lab at MIT is the world’s largest, with more than 100 students and scientists. Langer is the youngest person ever elected to the top three U.S. national academies: the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.

Q: Beyond scientific and mathematical intelligence, what are the fundamental qualities necessary to be a good researcher?

A: I would say creativity, perseverance, courage and taking risks. Great scientists don’t necessarily take the conventional route. They get criticized. They fail. You have to believe it’s okay if you fail and if people say your ideas are wrong.

Q: What motivates you?

A: I always ask myself, “How can I make the greatest impact?” I believe it’s good to dream. And it’s good to expose yourself to areas you don’t know that can stretch you.

Q: What led you to become a biomedical engineer after you earned your Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT?

A: I received quite a few job offers from oil and chemical companies, but I turned them down. I was hoping to do something that would improve the quality of people’s lives. I’d always wanted to be a teacher, so I wrote to some schools. But no one wrote back. Then I wrote to medical schools and hospitals, but again, no one replied. Then a colleague told me that Judah Folkman, a clinician doing cancer research at Harvard Medical School, sometimes took “unusual people.”

Q: You worked with Folkman on angiogenesis and its role in the growth of tumors. What was the greatest engineering challenge in this project?

A: Our theory was that if we could stop the formation of new blood vessels, we could stop the growth of tumors and cancers. We looked at the two parts of the body – cartilage and cornea – that do not have blood vessels. We developed a polymer with a cartilage inhibitor and implanted it alongside a tumor in the cornea. But it took 200 tests before we could get a protein inhibitor to pass through the polymeric membrane and stop the tumor’s angiogenesis.

Q: How do you come up with ideas for projects?

A: I’m always thinking to myself, “What’s going to be next?” Twelve years ago, I was watching a show on PBS on computer chips and how they’re made. I thought, “What a great way to do drug delivery! Can we make a chip for controlled release of drugs?” I contacted Mike Cima, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT. We took a biocompatible chip a little smaller than a dime, dotted it with tiny wells, filled the wells with medication and covered them with gold. We applied a selective voltage that caused the gold to dissolve and release the drug.

Q: How is that project progressing now?

A: Overall, very well. A prototype has been tested successfully in dogs. The chip can be used for remote-control delivery as well as for sensing things like glucose levels. John Santini, the student who helped develop it, has started a company that works with some of the big medical-device firms.

Q: What are the next frontiers in biomedical engineering? What breakthroughs do you see on the horizon?

A: Personalized medicine, genetic therapies such as siRNA [small interference RNA]. Smart drug-delivery systems on a chip. Targeted therapies that deliver a drug, or even DNA, right to a cell. Also, we’re working on nanotechnology that can deliver treatment directly to a cell.

Q: You have been a champion of technology transfer. How does academia benefit from commercializing technology?

A: Technology transfer is an art form. You try to create a win-win situation for the entrepreneur, the professor, the university and the venture capitalist. Every situation is unique. I started doing technology transfer because of its potential to bring concepts from the lab to the point where they can become products that help people. The amount of money you can raise from VC companies enables you to make a product that will improve and save people’s lives.

Technology transfer is also good for property values and job opportunities. Look at Kendall Square, the area around MIT. In the 1970s it was a slum. Now it has hundreds of companies, along with good hotels and restaurants. Technology transfer has played a huge role in this.

Q: How do we educate the next generation of scientists? What are we not doing, in grades K-12 and in universities, that we ought to be doing?

A: I think we need great teachers and great schools at every level. We need to provide better incentives for people to be teachers, and we need to put more money into developing curriculums that are exciting to kids. We also need to improve the training of science teachers. Any solution has to start with governmental policies that reward these kinds of things. Right now, they’re not rewarded.

Q: Of your many achievements, is there one of which you are proudest?

A: I view myself not only as an inventor and scientist but also as an educator. To me, it’s very important that we not just make discoveries but that we also train future leaders. So, when I look back on what we’ve done, I’m probably as proud, if not prouder, of how well my students and postdocs have done in their careers as I am of the things we’ve done in the lab. Our people have done spectacularly well; it’s almost humbling to me.

Q: What is your teaching philosophy? Do you have a particular strategy as you guide people in your lab?

A: When I teach a class, I’m very big on class participation. I ask a lot of questions to get students involved. I try to develop topics that are relevant, and I like to use case-study methods.

When I mentor people in the lab, I try to pick projects that are going to have an impact. I try to encourage people; I want people to work hard because they believe in what they’re doing, not because they feel they have to work a certain number of hours. I give people a lot of leeway.

I think there’s a bridge students have to cross. Throughout grammar school, high school and even much of the undergraduate program, you spend most of your time answering questions other people ask you. You’re judged on how good your answers are. And yet, if you think about it, the success you make is far more dependent on the questions you ask yourself. So you have to make this transition from being good at answering somebody else’s questions to being able to ask the important questions yourself. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the questions you ask that defines you, rather than the answers you give to somebody else’s questions. What I want to do is encourage people to try to ask good questions.

Technology transfer, Langer said in a recent visit to Lehigh, is an art form that can transform communities.

“Ultimately, it’s the quality of the questions you ask that defines you, rather than the answers you give to somebody else’s questions.”