2022 Balzan Prize for Biomaterials for Nanomedicine and Tissue Engineering
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 25.11.2022 (Video + Text)
Thank you so much. I feel very privileged to receive this remarkable award from the Balzan Foundation.
I thought I’d tell you a little about my career. When I finished my chemical engineering degree at MIT, I received many job offers to join oil companies –which is what most chemical engineers did at that time. But I had this dream of using my background to improve people’s education or health, and I began working at Children’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School. I was the only engineer there. One project that I began working on involved developing tiny particles – called microparticles or nanoparticles – to deliver substances to study and possibly treat cancer. Many of these substances were large, like proteins and DNA or RNA, and before, no one had been able to develop ways to deliver them to people in a way where they would not be destroyed almost immediately. In fact, the published literature said this was not possible. Perhaps the only thing I had going for me is that I had not read that literature.
So, I spent several years in the laboratory trying to find a way to do this. In fact, I managed to find over 200 different ways to get this to not work. However, I finally made a discovery that got it to work. Yet this discovery was initially greeted with great skepticism by the scientific community. My first nine research grants were rejected, and I could not get a faculty job in a chemical engineering department. In addition, the year after I finally got my first faculty job, the chairman of the Department who had hired me left, and so a number of the senior faculty in the Department decided to give me advice. Their advice was that I should be looking for another job. So there I was, getting my grants turned down, people not believing in my research, and having little hope of even keeping my lowly assistant professor job. However, I kept persevering for many years, and I was fortunate that eventually scientists in the pharmaceutical and medical industries started using some of the principles and inventions I had made. Slowly things began to turn around and eventually I even got promoted.
Today this discovery is used all over the world to help treat diseases like schizophrenia, opioid addiction, and diabetes. It also helped enable the discovery of new drugs like Avastin and Eyelea that are now widely used by millions of people to treat cancer and eye diseases like macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. Most recently, it served as the basis for delivery of all messenger RNA vaccines, including that of Moderna, a company I helped start. It is used all over the world for Covid vaccines. Our research also led to new ways of creating tissues and organs, like artificial skin for burn victims. And it is leading to organs and tissues on a chip, which someday may reduce the amount of testing on animals and human to get drugs approved for patients. I hope my personal story is an example of how dreaming about doing things that many think are impossible – and facing a lot of opposition and ridicule but continuing to persevere – can make the world a better and healthier place. This would never have happened without having a terrific staff and research group, both today and in the past. Also, I would not be here without the loving support of my wife, Laura, and my children, two of whom are here today. I want to again thank you very much. It’s a tremendous privilege to receive this award from such a wonderful foundation.