Robert Langer, 2019 Dreyfus Prize Winner

Robert S. Langer, Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will receive the 2019 Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences on Thursday, September 26, at 5:00 p.m. The ceremony, which will feature a talk by Langer on Chemistry in Support of Human Health, is open to the public and will be held in Room 26-100 at MIT. A live stream of the event will be available at https://cheme.mit.edu/dreyfus-prize-webcast/

Langer is an icon at the intersection of polymer chemistry and medicine. His discoveries in drug delivery and tissue engineering have impacted the lives of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. He is the most highly cited engineer in the world and has been called the “Edison of Medicine” by Forbes magazine for his prolific inventions in biotechnology and biomedicine.

Langer’s work is marked by an ambition to improve human health and medical outcomes. As a young chemical engineer, he forsook a career in industry to pioneer the field of biotechnology. His creation of controlled release drug delivery systems revolutionized medical therapies for a wide variety of diseases and disorders, including brain and prostate cancer, macular degeneration, schizophrenia and other mental health disorders, and opioid addition. His breakthrough discoveries in tissue engineering led to the first human-based artificial skin approved by the FDA for burn victims, as well as the development of liver, cartilage, bone, corneas, and blood vessels in humans.

Today, Langer continues to break ground with new discoveries in drug delivery and tissue regeneration. With a cadre of nearly 1,000 research students who have gone through his lab, his mission is being realized in all corners of the globe. He is currently working with the Gates Foundation to greatly expand the number of lives his research might touch. For more on his research, see the Langer Lab website and the Dreyfus Prize announcement

What principles drove you to continue your breakthrough research in large molecule-controlled drug delivery? What barriers did you cross? Did you have an “aha” or “lightbulb” moment?
My interest in understanding how to control the movement of large molecules began in an unusual way. I started my postdoctoral career working with the late Judah Folkman, attempting to isolate the first inhibitor of angiogenesis (blood vessel growth). To do so, it was critical to develop a bioassay for angiogenesis inhibitors, nearly all of which were macromolecules. We conceived of using a rabbit cornea assay where we could directly visualize blood vessel growth (Langer et al., 1976) through an ophthalmic microscope. However, that assay could take up to several months, so it was critical to have a very small biocompatible controlled release polymer system that would not cause inflammation in the cornea, and that could slowly and continuously release macromolecules (e.g. peptides, proteins, and nucleic acids) for long time periods.

When I started my investigations, it was widely believed that only low-molecular weight lipophilic compounds – but certainly not ionic molecules, peptides, or proteins – could be slowly released from biocompatible polymers. Dr. Folkman contacted many experts and they told him this couldn’t be done – large molecules couldn’t slowly leak out of a biocompatible polymer for any appreciable period of time.  The literature said the same thing. Sometimes I think the only reason I started working on this was that I hadn’t read that literature. Anyhow, I did work on it for several years and found hundreds of ways to fail. One of the ways I would do the release tests was with gel assay where you’d get a color change in the gel if the macromolecules were being released in active form. Almost every formulation I tested produced a color change in the gel in the first few hours and sometimes up to a day. But then there was nothing: no color change at all on day 2. I tested hundreds of systems and I was very discouraged. Then finally, I found a formulation made of ethylene-vinyl acetate copolymer that did result in a color change – and it kept changing every day, for over 100 days. I was incredibly excited to see this happen with my own eyes.

What has been the most impactful application of your research in drug delivery? Which aspect of your contribution has been most gratifying and why?
The most impactful thing to me is that according to a number of sources, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people every year benefit from the principles, discoveries and inventions our lab has made. What’s most gratifying has been to know that the chemical and chemical engineering work our lab has done has enabled patients with cancer and other diseases to receive new treatments that have improved and, in some cases, saved lives.

In what direction might drug companies, healthcare and academic research institutions continue on with the foundations you’ve laid?
There are many. In drug delivery, crossing barriers such as the blood brain barrier; being able to target drugs to specific cells; designing intelligent delivery systems; and developing new nano- based systems to enable genetic therapies. In tissue engineering, creating organ on a chip-based systems to accelerate drug testing and reduce reliance on animal and human testing; and developing ways to restore everything from blindness and deafness to eliminating paralysis to repairing cartilage, bone, skin and other tissues and organs.

How would you describe the flow of your career, in terms of where you’ve focused your research over time? How have you followed up with tissue engineering?
I’ve spent almost all of my career focused on the interface of chemistry and chemical engineering on human health. It started when I did my postdoctoral work with Judah Folkman at Boston Children’s Hospital where I was the only engineer in the hospital. I developed techniques to isolate and test angiogenesis inhibitors (this involved creating the first biocompatible polymer systems to slowly release macromolecules (angiogenesis inhibitors are macromolecules)) and using these techniques to prove that angiogenesis inhibitors existed (prior to this most scientists didn’t believe such inhibitors existed) by isolating the first such inhibitors. This got me interested in understanding how materials could be used to deliver drugs.

Also while at the hospital, I met Jay Vacanti, a surgeon who became head of the liver transplant program, and he told me about the organ shortage problem. Together, we came up with a new idea on how to address this by conceiving of combining appropriate three-dimensional polymer structures and mammalian cells which would help spawn the field of tissue engineering. We have followed up on that field in a number of ways including synthesis of new materials; creating organs on a chip; developing new bioreactors for cells; and developing new approaches to create tissues like blood vessels, spinal cords, and restore hearing among others.

What aspects of your current work hold the greatest near-term promise for practical application?
I hope some of the things we are doing with the Gates Foundation to help people in the developing world are among them. We are trying to develop better delivery systems for drugs and vaccines, and better ways of providing nutrition for the developing world. A number of these are in clinical trials but there is still a long way to go.

In an ideal world, what would be the process that would enable scientists to be even more successful?  What are the most important resources scientists need to achieve their goals? From your perspective, what do you think stands in the way of big discoveries in the current environment?
I think funding for basic research, blue sky research is the most important thing. And also having that funding for long time horizons.

As a chemical engineer specializing in health care, what is the relative role of chemistry versus chemical engineering?
They are both incredibly important and sometimes the roles blur. Chemical engineering is often more applied. In our lab, we’ve been lucky to have outstanding people in both areas who work together.

What do you think is the next “big thing” out there? What does the healthcare industry and drug therapy research really need to focus on in the coming years and decades? What’s the biggest need in drug research to treat either one or more varying diseases?
There are many. Two big areas are the development of new genetic therapies such as siRna, mRNA, and gene editing; and cellular therapies for treating diseases like cancer or enabling what we call tissue engineering or regenerative medicine.

What advice would you give young chemists and chemical engineers?
Dream big dreams that can change the world, recognize that you may often be told that what you are dreaming about may be impossible and will never happen, but don’t give up on those dreams.

Looking to the future, are there additional goals or missions that you hope to achieve?
My major goals remain to come up with ideas that will have a big impact on the world, to bring those ideas to a clinical or practical reality, and to train the very best people I can to lead us into our future.

2019 Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Awards

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation has selected eight Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholars for 2019. The award provides an unrestricted research grant of $75,000 to young faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions who are accomplished researchers and committed educators.


Paul Abbyad, Santa Clara University
Sorting Cancer Cells Based on Metabolism Using Droplet Microfluidics


Mary Elizabeth Anderson, Furman University
Bottom-Up Assembly of Nanomaterials: Investigating Fundamentals of Formation to Tailor Material Structure and Properties


Louise Charkoudian, Haverford College
Unveiling Molecular Underpinnings of Natural Product Biosynthesis


Lionel Cheruzel, San Jose State University
Light-Driven P450 Biocatalysis Featuring Ru(II)-Diimine Complexes


Christopher Graves, Swarthmore College
Enabling New Catalytic Chemistry for Aluminum with Non-Innocent and Redox-Active Ligands


Amy Lane, University of North Florida
Revealing Biosynthetic Secrets to Unleash Nature’s Chemical Aptitude


William McNamara, The College of William & Mary
Catalyst-Sensitized Metal Oxides for Photocatalytic Hydrogen Generation


Rachel Stanley
, Wellesley College
The Gas Toolbox: Chemical Clues for Understanding the Effect of Climate Change on the Ocean

Robert Langer Wins 2019 Dreyfus Prize

Robert Langer, Institute Professor at MIT, winner of 2019 Dreyfus Prize
photo: Science History Institute / Wikimedia Commons

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation has announced that Robert Langer, Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has won the 2019 Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences. The biennial Prize, which includes a $250,000 award, is conferred this year in Chemistry in Support of Human Health. The award ceremony will be held at MIT on September 26 and will include a lecture by Langer.

Langer is honored for discoveries and inventions of materials for drug delivery systems and tissue engineering that have had a transformative impact on human health through the chemical sciences. He has been cited as one of history’s most prolific inventors in medicine and biochemistry. The drug delivery technologies that he invented have been lauded as the cornerstone of that industry, positively impacting hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The impact and influence of his work is vast, and his papers have been cited in scientific publications more than any other engineer in history.

Langer’s work on drug delivery is at the interface of biotechnology and materials chemistry, with a strong focus on the study and development of polymers to deliver drugs continuously and at controlled rates for prolonged periods. His innovations in drug delivery have been translated into commercial products that have had a remarkable benefit to human health and include brain and prostate cancer, macular degeneration, and a variety of mental health disorders including schizophrenia and opioid addition. His pioneering work in tissue engineering (with Joseph Vacanti) has led to the creation of new skin, cartilage, bone, corneas, and blood vessels in humans. His leadership in both the underlying science and its applications has given rise to entirely new fields of the chemical sciences and engineering.

Langer is further renowned as a mentor, with nearly 1,000 former students and postdocs becoming established leaders in academia, industry, and government.

“There is no greater benefit that the chemical sciences provide to society than the many profound contributions to the science and technology of human health,” stated Matthew Tirrell, Chair of the Dreyfus Foundation Scientific Affairs Committee and Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. “Bob Langer created two rich fields at the intersection of chemistry and medicine: controlled release materials for delivery of therapeutic macromolecules and tissue engineering. His discoveries have been translated, often by Langer himself, to many products that profoundly impact human health. In a diverse field of chemists and chemical engineers with many powerful contributors, the enormous body and influence of Bob Langer’s work stands out in a singular way.”

Robert Langer has received many prizes and awards, including the National Medal of Science, the Priestley Medal, the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, the Wolf Prize, the Charles Stark Draper Award, the Lemelson-MIT Prize for Invention and Innovation, and numerous others. About 400 companies have licensed or sublicensed his inventions and over 40 companies have been spun out of the Langer lab.

Henry C. Walter, President of the Dreyfus Foundation, said, “The Dreyfus brothers, entrepreneurs in the chemical sciences, would surely have marveled at Bob Langer’s remarkable creative innovation and productivity. We are proud to honor his extraordinary achievements with the 2019 Dreyfus Prize.”

“It’s always been a dream for me to be able to use my scientific background to help prolong life and relieve human suffering. When I look at the remarkable individuals in chemistry and chemical engineering around the world, including the people who have won the Dreyfus Prize previously, receiving this award is truly humbling,” said Langer.

The Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences, initiated in 2009, is conferred in a specific area of chemistry in each cycle. It is the highest honor of the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. The Foundation was established in 1946 by chemist, inventor, and businessman Camille Dreyfus, with the mission to advance the science of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related sciences as a means of improving human relations and circumstances throughout the world.

2019 Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Awards

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation has selected 13 Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholars for 2019. These young faculty have each created an outstanding independent body of scholarship and are deeply committed to education. The frontier accomplishments of these award recipients span the broad range of contemporary research in the chemical sciences. Each Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar receives an unrestricted research grant of $100,000.


Jose Avalos
, Princeton University
Spatial and Dynamic Control of Engineered Metabolism for Microbial Chemical Production


Tianning Diao, New York University
Stereoselective Alkene Carbofunctionalization: Development, Mechanisms, and Applications


Bryan Dickinson, The University of Chicago
Chemical and Evolutionary Approaches to Probe and Control Biology


Keary Engle, The Scripps Research Institute
New Strategies for Selective Catalytic Functionalization of C–C π-Bonds


Renee Frontiera, University of Minnesota
Nanoscale Raman Spectroscopy


Garret Miyake, Colorado State University
Harnessing the Power of Light: Light-Driven Syntheses Reflective Materials


Timothy Newhouse, Yale University
Chemical Technologies and Computational Approaches for the Step-efficient Synthesis of Structurally Complex Natural Products


Amish Patel, University of Pennsylvania
How Surfaces Recognize and Bind Nascent Crystals


Dipali Sashital, Iowa State University
Defining the Molecular Basis for Memory Formation in CRISPR-Cas Systems


Natalia Shustova, University of South Carolina
Photophysics of Hybrid Hierarchical Structures with Emphasis on Directional Energy Transfer


Christopher Uyeda, Purdue University
Designing New Catalysts Using Metal-Metal Bonds


Timothy Wencewicz, Washington University in St. Louis
New Antibiotics from Nature’s Chemical Inventory


Jenny Yang, University of California, Irvine
Molecular Design of Redox Catalysts

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