As this week is European Week Against Cancer (EWAC), we speak to Dr Robert Langer, the first person to engineer polymers to advance drug delivery, treating many diseases such as cancer.
Introducing Dr Langer, the ground-breaking chemical engineer who has been awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for his revolutionary advances in engineering. Langer was named as one of the 25 most important individuals in biotechnology by Forbes Magazine and CNN (1999) and Bio World (1990), and as one of the 100 most important people – ‘America’s Best’ – by Time magazine (2001). In light of European Week Against Cancer, Langer talks to Health Europa about the evolving environment of biotechnology, utilising large molecule-controlled drug delivery, treating diseases such as cancer and the future of his research.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into the world of bioengineering, specifically the field of large molecule-controlled drug delivery?
My interest in bioengineering was sparked at a young age when my parents bought me a Gilbert chemistry set. As an 11-year-old, I set up a small laboratory in the basement of our house in Albany, N.Y. and spent countless hours mixing chemicals to change colours or cause reactions.
Inspired by these formative experiences, I went on to study chemical engineering at Cornell University and received an Sc.D. in chemical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1974. After graduating, I received many offers from oil companies and the like, but I was driven by a desire to use my background in chemistry and chemical engineering to help people more directly.
From 1974 to 1977, I worked as a postdoctoral fellow on cancer researcher with surgeon Dr Judah Folkman at the Children’s Hospital Boston and at Harvard Medical School. During these years, I developed a large molecule-controlled drug delivery system. I was drawn to this field as the ability to control the movement of molecules is critically important to improving peoples’ lives. Ultimately, the FDA approved our polymer-based treatment for brain cancer in 1996, and many other products based on our research have since made it into public use.
How does controlled release of large molecules hold the key to tackling long-standing problems like cancer, mental illness, and diabetes as opposed to small molecules?
The controlled release of large molecules over prolonged periods has – and will continue to have – significant implications for the delivery of substances in medicine. This area of science is advancing at a rapidly accelerating pace and also has uses for the delivery of substances in agriculture, aquaculture, and household consumer products. However, if the substances do not last long enough, they are not effective. Controlled release enables that to happen.
Let’s talk nanoparticles and polymers; How do the unique materials of the nanoparticles and polymers that were developed in your lab function?
Nanotechnology involves systems on the order of one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. It is a major focus area for me, and I am developing new nanoparticles to treat cancer and other diseases. Essentially, nanoparticles transport drugs within the bloodstream – this also helps with the imaging and diagnostics of cancer, as well as studying cancer progression.
A nanoparticle’s core or shell can be made up of polymers or metals. Looking at polymers, I was able to engineer them to control the delivery of large and small molecular weight drugs for the treatment of diseases such as cancer. To do this, I had to invent a very complex porous polymer as it was thought previously that synthetic polymers blocked the passage of the inhibitor. I then went on to invent many more polymers with specific biomedical uses. Among them was a drug delivery system for the treatment of brain cancer (developed with Henry Brem of the Johns Hopkins University Medical School) that delivers chemotherapy directly to a tumour site.
What is the efficacy of such a technology? What makes such a treatment different than chemotherapy? Are there any side effects?
It has far fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapy, and the chips that my teams design have become increasingly sophisticated over the years. Some carry several drugs at a time and respond to stimuli external to the body – such as ultrasound signals – or chemical stimuli within the body. The latter can even hone in on a tumour.
Your work has had a major influence in the world of bioengineering, drug delivery and nanotechnology. Are you satisfied with the progress that has been made in recent decades?
I am satisfied to a certain extent with the progress that has been made, but I would still like to do better. We have drastically improved treatments for diseases like cancer and medical issues such as opioid addiction, but they still are not complete cures, and many other diseases remain untreated.
Subsequent generations of bioengineers have a lot of room to further impact healthcare in the future, so it is imperative that we highlight engineering as a viable and rewarding career path.
One of the ways in which the international community helps to cast a light over fields like bioengineering, drug delivery, and nanotechnology is through public recognition. In 2015, I received the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering – the world’s most prestigious engineering accolade – for my work on large molecule drug delivery. The prize celebrates the global impact of engineering innovation on humanity; hopefully, by continuing to celebrate the immense impact that the profession has on the world, the next generation of engineers will be inspired to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.
Where do your own research interests lie now?
My own research interests now lie in developing new medicines and drug delivery systems for the developing world, including using nanotechnology to deliver genetic medicines. I am proud to be working in conjunction with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on many aspects of this.
I also focus on tissue and organ engineering. My colleagues and I invented 3D synthetic-polymer scaffolding on which new skin, muscle, bone, blood vessels, or entire organs can grow, enabling victims of serious accidents or birth defects to generate missing tissue.
Artificial skin for burn victims is already a reality, and research continues on developing new platforms for growing more complex tissues, such as heart or liver tissue. The goal, ultimately, is to one day make fully implantable organs from scratch.
Dr Robert Langer