Robert Langer

2022 Balzan Prize for Biomaterials for Nanomedicine and Tissue Engineering

For pioneering research on biopolymers and biomaterials, and their synthesis, and developing the field of nanomedicine, including advances in mRNA vaccines and tissue engineering. Robert Langer’s groundbreaking discoveries have paved the way for breakthroughs in the controlled release of macromolecules, with many medical applications.

Robert Langer was the first to uncover the principles enabling the use of polymers for the delivery of a wide range of macromolecules, including some with a molecular weight of several millions. Thus, his discoveries enabled the development of new technologies for the slow release of large molecules for medical and other purposes. His experimental findings went against the then conventional wisdom of the scientific community. However, today it is clear that his discoveries initiated a field that has broadly and profoundly affected medical treatments. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide use controlled release medications each year and their annual sales are now measured in billions of dollars. Polymeric drug delivery systems, based largely on his discoveries, have permitted drug therapies that otherwise would not be possible and have reduced health care expenditures by allowing minute quantities of drugs to be precisely delivered over prolonged times while avoiding systemic complications.

Biopolymers and biomaterials have played a significant role in the effective delivery and use of biological compounds. Before Robert Langer, scientists used “off the shelf” materials to address a biological or medical problem, even though the materials were not designed for that use, for example, the same material used in women’s girdles was used in artificial hearts because of its mechanical properties; and materials used to stuff mattresses were also used for breast implants. He proposed a new approach, which provided the first rational framework for the design of biomaterials and biopolymers for specific purposes. 

Robert Langer (and his co-worker Joseph Vacanti) were the first to develop synthetic polymer systems to allow cells to form specific tissue, structures thereby establishing the field of tissue engineering. This breakthrough also led to the design of new artificial skin that is now used for patients with burns and skin ulcers. Replacement cartilage, bones, corneas, blood vessel, and spinal cords have all been created in humans using this approach, which eventually may lead to the creation of virtually any tissue or organ of the body, and organs as well as specific tissues on a chip. He also discovered ways to use small molecules delivered by gels that greatly enhance the growth of certain types of stem cells; molecules of this type are now being tested clinically to restore hearing loss. In a series of eight papers in the journal Nature, Robert Langer and his former postdoctoral fellow, Daniel Anderson, elucidated the basis for biomaterials fibrosis and developed the first materials that were non-fibrotic which they then used successfully for cell encapsulation.

In the field of the controlled release of drugs, he proposed utilizing polymers that display surface erosion, a property that may protect unstable molecules, as well as enabling drugs to be released gradually.

Robert Langer (and the late Judah Folkman) were the first to develop tiny particles to protect and deliver nucleic acids – even though it was deemed impossible at that time. Their approach (which has been improved by others) is today the basis for all mRNA vaccines.

He developed the first technologies for the delivery of large molecular weight molecules using advanced material  leading to numerous medical and non-medical products including new treatments for cancer such as Lupron Depot, Zoladex, and Gliadel; for heart disease such as drug-eluting stents; for diabetes such as Bydureon. In a very different field, he has developed products for aquaculture that promote spawning by fish.

Robert Langer synthesized the first long-circulating polymeric nanoparticles helping to pave the way for nanomedicine, and the first 3-dimensional polymer-cell systems forming the basis for tissue engineering. This has enabled the creation of new skin, blood vessels, spinal cord repair, and organs and tissues on a chip. 

His discoveries have made it possible to overcome the critical limitation of many potential new drugs and therapies (siRNA, mRNA, gene-editing approaches), including corona vaccines, by facilitating their delivery to specific human tissues. His fundamental discoveries and basic research on the transport of macromolecules within, and release from tailor-made materials, as well as the synthesis of new such materials, coupled with countless applications also pioneered by Robert Langer, have already improved the lives of billions of people. He is the most highly cited person in the fields of engineering and chemistry in our entire history and is one of the top three most cited researchers in any field. He is the author of more than 1,500 papers (where over 200 are published in

Nature, Science and PNAS). He is the inventor behind more than 1,000 granted patents and more than 500 pending, which is the highest number in history for medicine.

He has been elected to the four academies in the US (the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Inventors), and he has received both the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in the USA. He has received numerous other awards (over 220), including the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering and the Millennium Technology Prize. He holds 40 honorary doctorates. His work has been widely commercialised: his patents have been licensed or sublicensed to over 300 companies and his lab has spun out about 45 biotech companies, including Moderna where his technology for drug delivery ensured stable provision of mRNA for a completely new class of vaccines. Several other of his spin-out companies have been listed on NASDAQ, and together have a market capitalisation of billions of USD.

A portrait in Nature in 2009 entitled Being Bob Langer stated, “He founded the field of controlled release drug delivery and tissue engineering.”

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