ALBANY, N.Y., April 29, 2005 – Dr. Robert S. Langer, a chemical engineer by trade whose groundbreaking research with polymers - or plastics - has revolutionized the field of drug delivery systems and has also helped spawn the entire new field of tissue engineering, has been named the recipient of the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medi cine and Biomedical Research, America's top prize in medicine.
Langer, a native of Albany, N.Y., is currently one of 14 Institute Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the highest honor awarded to a faculty member there. Langer was born at Albany Hospital, the forerunner to the Albany Medical Center for which the Albany Prize is named.
"The world owes an infinite debt of gratitude to Dr. Langer for his pioneering work in the field of drug delivery systems that has improved the lives of more than 60 million people each year," said James J. Barba, Chairman of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer of Albany Medical Center, who also chairs the national selection committee for the Albany Medical Center Prize. "Dr. Langer’s work has spawned revolutionary advances in cancer treatment, has given birth to an entirely new field of biotechnology known as tissue engineering, and most recently has fueled the development of cardiac stents that have virtually eliminated the risk of restenosis in patients undergoing treatment for cardiovascular disease. On a personal note, this is a particularly exciting day for all of us with ties to the Capital Region, as this is the first time the Selection Committee has chosen an outstanding scientist who also happens to be an Albany native, a true hometown hero."
The Albany Medical Center Prize is the largest prize in medicine in the United States and second worldwide to the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The award – now in its fifth year - is worth $500,000.
Langer was selected for the Albany Medical Center Prize for his entire body of scientific work, most notably his seminal research on polymer-based drug delivery systems, which has allowed clinicians to control the release of large molecules in a slow, steady and controlled manner. Prior to Langer’s groundbreaking discovery, many large molecules could not be used therapeutically because they could not be given orally nor could they be delivered via injection since the body’s enzymes attacked and destroyed them.
The practical application of Langer’s work has led to the development of an array of plastic devices that are surgically implanted to deliver medicines and hormones in precisely regulated amounts over long periods of time. The polymer-coated, drug-eluting stent that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2003 for use in the treatment of cardiovascular disease is one of the more celebrated examples of the translational benefits of this research. Other well-known applications include the development of a controlled-release system that was approved for use with a large molecule peptide drug that combats advanced prostate cancer, endometriosis and other diseases in more than 300,000 patients each year.
Langer’s work with polymers has also led to the development of artificial skin which is used in the treatment of burn patients, and bone and cartilage which are in clinical trials. Langer’s research is credited with paving the way for the advent of a radical new discipline called tissue engineering, which scientists hope will one day obviate the need for donor organs.
Langer is also credited with helping to develop the concept of local chemotherapy, whereby neurosurgeons are able to use dime-size wafers to deliver potent drugs to the exact spot where a tumor was removed, severely limiting side effects and extending the lives of patients.
The Albany Medical Center Prize was established in November 2000 following a $50 million gift commitment to Albany Medical Center from Morris "Marty" Silverman, a New York City businessman and philanthropist who was born in Troy, N.Y., and educated in nearby Albany. The annual Prize – announced each spring – has been created to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving health care and promoting biomedical research with translational benefits applied to improved patient care.
As a newly minted Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from MIT, Langer got his start in the lab of Dr. Judah Folkman, the world-renowned surgeon and cancer researcher at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Folkman had theorized that tumors were able to develop by using proteins to recruit their own blood supply; hence, by choking off that blood supply researchers might be able to unlock one of the mysteries of cancer. Langer’ s challenge was quite simple: to develop a methodology that would allow for the slow, steady and controlled release of large molecules that could allow scientists and researchers to study the proteins that were being exploited by tumors.
Langer set out to invent a plastic material that could be likened to a very complex version of Swiss cheese, w ith holes just the right size to allow large molecules to pass through. He accomplished this by mixing two powdery plastics with an organic solvent, such as alcohol, and a protein. Langer then added water, which caused the protein granules to swell, creating a tiny network of winding channels inside the plastic through which the proteins slowly escaped.
Langer’s groundbreaking discovery laid the foundation for a number of seminal breakthroughs in the area of polymer-based drug delivery systems that are widely used or being studied today in the treatment of disease -- from tiny wafers that deliver chemotherapy to localized areas (a project he collaborated on with Dr. Henry Brem, a Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon) to implantable computer chips that regulate the release of drugs that are now being studied in animals.
Langer is also widely recognized as one of the "fathers of tissue engineering," a multi-billion dollar industry that mushroomed out of his collaborative research with Dr. Jay Vacanti, a transplant surgeon at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Langer and Vacanti used polymers to create a scaffold on which living cells could proliferate. Their work has led to the development of artificial skin now used to treat burn patients, and has laid the foundation for research into repairing heart vessels and regenerating damaged spinal and vocal chords. The long-term implications may allow scientists to replicate virtually any tissue or organ in the body, thereby eliminating the need for donor organs.
In addition to the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine, Langer has received more than 130 major awards including the $500,000 Charles Stark Draper Prize – considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers -- and the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the nation’s largest and most prestigious prize for invention. Langer is also the youngest person ever inducted into all three of this country’s major national science academies – the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.
Langer is the author of more than 800 scholarly papers, has over 500 issued or pending patents, and his research has spawned more than a dozen biotech firms. He served as a member of the United States Food and Drug Administration’s SCIENCE Board, the FDA’s highest advisory board, from 1995-2002 and as its Chairman from 1999-2002. Recently, Parade magazine selected Langer as one of six heroes whose research may save your life, while Time magazine named him one of the 100 most important people in America.
Langer was born in Albany, N.Y., on August 29, 1948. He attended Albany School 27 and the now defunct Milne High School. Langer received his Bachelor’s Degree from Cornell University in 1970 and his Sc.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1974, both in Chemical Engineering.
Langer and his wife, Laura – who received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from MIT - have three children.
Previous winners of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine include: 2004 co-recipients Dr. Stanley N. Cohen and Herbert W. Boyer, Ph.D., whose research discovering recombinant DNA – more commonly known as gene cloning – paved the way for the modern biotechnology industry; 2003 co-recipients Dr. Michael S. Brown and Dr. Joseph L. Goldstein whose studies of cholesterol have served as the foundation for the development of life-saving, cholesterol lowering drugs; Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a scientific leader who was recognized in 2002 for his seminal work on AIDS and other diseases of the immune system; and Dr. Arnold J. Levine, the inaugural recipient who co-discovered the p53 protein, described as perhaps the most important tumor suppressor gene in human cancer.
Albany Medical Center is one of only 125 academic health sciences centers in the nation and the only such health care institution in northeastern New York. With 6,500 staff members, this leading not-for-profit health care institution constitutes the largest private employer in Albany. It includes one of New York’s largest teaching hospitals, the Albany Medical Center Hospital (founded in 1849); one of the nation’s oldest medical schools, the Albany Medical College (founded in 1839); and one of the Capital Region’s most active fundraising organizations, the Albany Medical Center Foundation, Inc.