Robert Langer's pioneering work in tissue engineering and drug delivery caught our attention. Curious to know more, BioTechniques contacted him to find out about the ambition, character, and motivation that led to his success.Big ideas
What has been your biggest professional challenge?
When I earned my degree in chemical engineering during the 1970s, almost all chemical engineers pursued careers with oil companies, but I wanted to use my education to help people. I first tried to find a job in chemistry education, but no one would hire me; I refocused my job search on medicine, but couldn't find a job there for a long time either. Finally, Judah Folkman offered me a postdoctoral fellow position at Boston Children's Hospital, providing me with my first exposure to biology. Still, when I finished work in that lab, my challenges continued. Chemical engineering departments didn't want to hire me because they felt I wasn't doing chemical engineering. When I tried working in another department, I almost didn't get tenure because they felt my work was scientifically unconventional. This was a big challenge in my early career.
What made you persist on this unconventional path?
I really believed my ideas could help people and I wanted to pursue them. In Dr. Folkman's lab, I studied vascular growth, which led to isolation of the first angiogenesis inhibitor and development of the first controlled release systems for large molecule drug delivery.
Also during my time in Dr. Folkman's lab, I met Jay Vacanti, a surgeon who later led the liver transplant program at Boston Children's Hospital. He was convinced that there must be a better way to approach these transplants and we envisioned that we could use polymer scaffolds for seeding cells to create new tissues and organs. This was before stem cells were talked about much, but that conversation helped launch the field of tissue engineering. Despite the challenges I faced, I believed these were big ideas that could change the future and help people clinically; the potential was too great to abandon these plans.
Given your engineering training, how does your approach differ from traditional biologists?
I would say the contributions we make are fundamentally different. For example, although our approach to tissue engineering involves cells, our focus on polymer scaffolds and other materials is different from others working in the field. Right now, many researchers study how soluble elements such as growth factors affect stem cell growth and behavior. Since we work on materials, we look at insoluble factors instead: how do polymers and surfaces affect stem cell growth and behavior? So, we address biological issues from a different perspective.
What are you working on now?
We continue to work on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Some of our projects aim toward understanding how materials affect cell differentiation and growth, including stem and induced pluripotent stem cells. We create new tissue engineering materials with varying elasticity and mechanical strength, as well as materials that won't become encapsulated by host tissues following surgical implantation. We also have efforts focused on rebuilding vocal chords, spinal chords, and intestines. And I'm still very interested in drug delivery; right now we are working on some projects involving nanotechnology for targeting tumors, as wells as smart delivery systems using microelectrical approaches.
Where do you find the ideas you pursue in the lab?
We find ideas everywhere. For example, I thought of the idea for a controlled release microchip while watching a TV show on how chips are manufactured in the computer industry, and I thought of shape memory materials while I was reading a magazine article about cars of the future. Sometimes we have a lab meeting just to brainstorm possible solutions to a particular problem.
The ideas for individual disease studies often come when clinicians initiate collaborations. Our vocal chord studies began when Steven Zeitels approached me for help. He was working with Julie Andrews and other singers, trying to help repair or replace damaged vocal chords. Our efforts in brain cancer, diabetes, and spinal chord regeneration all began as collaborations as well. Since we have developed core bioengineering technologies, we can apply these to a variety of different problems when clinicians approach us.
What has been your biggest contribution to the field?
One of my biggest contributions is training scientists. I have close to 250 former students and postdoctoral fellows who are now university professors in bioengineering, chemical engineering, and other departments around the world. Another 250 of my trainees have started or joined biotech or medical device companies. I think the people I trained and the careers they are pursuing represent one of my most significant influences on my field.