Robert S. Langer, Sc.D., the David H. Koch Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been named winner of the 2012 Priestley Medal by the American Chemical Society (ACS).
The award recognizes Langer's cutting-edge research that helped launch the controlled-release drug industry and the field of tissue engineering. His work cuts across disciplines to deliver advances in pharmaceuticals, chemical engineering and medical devices from the laboratory to patients. The annual award, the highest honor bestowed by ACS, consists of a gold medallion designed to commemorate the work of Joseph Priestley, as well as a presentation box and a certificate. One of the founders of modern chemistry, Priestley is perhaps best known for his discovery of oxygen in 1774. The award was presented at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the ACS, which is taking place here this week.
"Professor Langer is a talented scientist who is motivated by a sense of responsibility to help people," says longtime collaborator Joseph P. Vacanti, M.D., a tissue engineering expert and pediatric surgeon at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. "His pioneering work, in particular in slow-release medicines, has helped millions of people throughout the world."
Langer pioneered the field of slow-release medicines, which provide consistent amounts of a drug over a long period, reducing the number of pills that a patient has to take. In one of his first discoveries, Langer found that certain materials could be dissolved, mixed with large molecular weight drugs and formed into new materials that slowly release these drugs into the body.
Another contribution was to revolutionize the way that biomedical devices are developed. Before Langer's group became involved in this line of research, clinicians would typically take off-the-shelf materials that somewhat looked or functioned like the tissue or organ they were studying and modify them. Langer took a different approach and used chemistry and chemical engineering concepts to design the biomaterials they needed.
A third key contribution was helping start the field of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering to address the problem of donor-organ shortages. More than 100,000 people in the United States are currently awaiting organ transplants, and many die while on the waiting list. Langer and colleagues created degradable polymer scaffolds on which human cells could grow. This innovation led to artificial skin, muscles, nerves, cartilage, bone and organs that are now used to treat patients.
Most recently, Langer's team developed contact lenses that release drugs and a gel that can help people with damaged vocal cords regain their voices. His group also is branching out into development of new surfaces on which stem cells can grow and novel ways using nanotechnology to deliver short interfering RNAs that could turn off malfunctioning genes that cause disease.