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Robert Langer
Robert Langer
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Robert Langer Interview

Biotechnologist and Entrepreneur

October 25, 2012
Washington, D.C.

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  Robert Langer

(Robert Langer addressed the delegates of the Academy of Achievement on October 25, 2012 at the International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C. His remarks on that occasion are interspersed with the text of this interview, conducted that same day.)

Dr. Langer, we've asked you to talk about how you became involved in this application of chemical engineering to medicine and biotechnology.

Robert Langer: I graduated in 1974, and I graduated in chemical engineering. So at that time there was this gas shortage, not unlike a few years ago, and what happened was that, just like a few years ago, the prices of gas kept going up, but it was even worse then. I live in Boston, and if you had a car, you actually had to wait in line at the gas station for about two hours to get your car filled up. But the consequence of that is that if you were a chemical engineer you got a lot of job offers. So pretty much every one of my classmates, they went to the oil industry, and so I thought that's what I should do too. So I applied. You didn't have to work that hard. I actually got 20 job offers. Four were actually from Exxon alone! And one of them made quite an impression on me. I remember going to Exxon in Baton Rouge, and they had some people who were a few years older than me talk to me about what they were doing, and they were saying, "Boy, if you could just increase the yield of this one petrochemical by .01 percent," they said, "That would be fantastic." They said, "That's worth billions of dollars." And I remember flying back to Boston that night thinking to myself that I really don't want to do that. I just thought it was boring. So what did I want to do?

When I was doing my thesis, I actually got involved in something else...

I had spent a lot of my time as a graduate student helping start a school for poor children in Cambridge. Cambridge people may not realize, even though it's got Harvard and MIT, in the 1970s it had the highest dropout rate in the United State for a city its size. So I got very interested in trying to help this school develop new chemistry and math curricula. I was doing that, and one day I saw an ad in a journal for being assistant professor to develop chemistry curriculum at City College in New York. And I thought, "That's great! That's what I want to do." So I wrote them a letter applying for the job, but they didn't write me back. But I really liked the idea, so I found all of the ads I could for jobs like that. I found about 40 of them, and I wrote to all of these universities. And actually, none of them wrote me back! So that wasn't going real well. So I started to think, "What other ways can I use my background in chemical engineering to help people?" I thought about medicine, so I wrote to a lot of hospitals and medical schools, and they didn't write back either. Then, one of the people in the lab where I was, he said, "Bob, you know, there's a surgeon in Boston named Judah Folkman." By the way he was also in the Academy, when he was alive. And he said, "There's a surgeon in Boston named Judah Folkman." And he said, "Sometimes he hires unusual people." He thought very highly of Dr. Folkman. I won't say what he thought about me. So anyhow, when I went, I was actually the only engineer in Boston's Children's Hospital.

I began working on two projects that were actually related. One, to see if we could actually discover the first substance that could stop cancer blood vessels from growing, and hopefully then stop cancer growth. And two, to develop plastic systems -- polymer systems -- that could slowly release these and other large molecules for a long time, so that we could test these substances. Now, before I started working on this problem, no one had been able to develop ways to continuously release these substances for a long time from bio-compatible polymers, and in fact, if you look in the scientific literature, they said actually it's impossible to do that, impossible to release these molecules. In fact, really the only thing I had going for me is I hadn't read that literature! So I actually spent about two years working on the project, and I actually found over 200 different ways to get it to not work. But finally, I made a discovery that I could modify certain types of plastics, and get them to release these molecules over a long time. Then we used these substances to create bioassays that enabled us to discover the first substances that stopped cancer blood vessels, and to help stop cancer.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Just as an aside, I should say it took 28 years -- this is sometimes how it works in medicine -- from our earliest paper in Science in this area, until the FDA approved the first blood vessel inhibitor. So today, starting in 2004, there are many of these, and these are some of the most widely used drugs in the world for treating cancer, also for treating certain diseases of blindness, like macular degeneration.

So about two years after I started working on this polymer delivery project, I got asked to give a talk to a very distinguished audience -- to polymer scientists and engineers in Michigan, actually. I had never given a big talk before. In fact, the only talk that I had really given before that one was in eighth grade! That was a minute-and-a-half speech and it didn't go real well. I remember, the night before that eighth grade speech, I stood in front of my parents' mirror for about four hours, and I kept reciting it over and over again. And the next day I got asked, when I got up in front of the class, I started reciting it, and I did okay for the first minute and two seconds, but then I couldn't remember the next word. I just froze. So I stood up there for another minute, until a teacher told me to sit down and gave me a pretty bad grade. I think it was an F. So now, when this big talk in Michigan came many years later, I was very nervous. I kept practicing the talk over and over into a tape recorder. Finally, the day came and I gave it, and I was pretty pleased by the end of the talk this time. I didn't forget too much what I was going to say, I didn't stammer too much. So I thought, when I was done with this scientific talk, that all of these older distinguished chemists and engineers being nice people -- actually, I should tell you -- there's probably very few scientists in the audience. Because usually when I say that, people know that scientists aren't always so nice! So I thought they'd actually want to encourage me, this young guy, but actually, when I got done with the talk, a number of these scientists came up and they said, "We don't believe anything you just said." They said, "You can't do that. You can't get these things through polymers." And it wasn't until several years later that people began repeating what we did. The question shifted to, "How could this happen?" I spent a lot of my early career at MIT trying to figure that out.

Robert Langer Interview Photo
Robert Langer Interview Photo

You've said that your ideas met some resistance at first. How did you go about getting the funding you needed?

Shortly after this talk I tried to get grant money to help do different projects. And I remember writing one grant to the NIH on cancer and I got the reviews back, which were really, really negative. They not only didn't give me the money, they said, "Well, how could Dr. Langer do this?" They said, "He's a chemical engineer. He doesn't know anything about biology, and he knows even less about cancer." I wasn't sure how that was possible to know less than nothing, but somehow that was the review. Anyhow, also, when I was done with my postdoctoral work I applied for different faculty positions to different chemical engineering departments. But when I did that, I had a lot of trouble getting a job, because they all felt I wasn't doing engineering. They felt it was more biology. So I ended up joining what was called the Nutrition and Food Science department at MIT. But in that department what happened was, about a year after I got the position, the chairman of the department left. So then a number of the senior members of the department decided they'd give me advice, and their advice was I should start looking for a new job. So there I was. I was getting my grants turned down, people didn't believe in my research, it appeared like I wasn't even going to get to be an associate professor. But fortunately, what happened over the next few years is different people in academics and in pharmaceutical companies started using a lot of our principles, and things slowly began to turn around.

I wanted to have our inventions to get to the point where they could really help people, and it's very difficult, because it takes a lot of money to do that. So I began writing patents on our work, and today we've licensed or sublicensed these patents to actually 250 different companies. Actually, with my students, we even started about 25 companies. I should add that when I first started doing this as a professor in the early '80s, most academic scientists looked down upon it. They said professors shouldn't do things like that. But today these companies have made all kinds of products that treat patients, -- and I'll mention some of this -- with cancer, heart disease, and many other sicknesses, they've created tens of thousands of jobs.

Let me give you two examples. In the first example, I'll expand a little bit about what I said earlier, where we develop polymer systems that could release large molecules.

One of the big challenges is getting a patent. That's actually key in a lot of scientific innovation. So we actually filed the first patent in the history of Boston's Children's Hospital in 1976, and the patent office turned it down. They actually turned it down five times between 1976 and 1981, and my lawyer just said we should give up, but I don't like to give up that easily. So I started thinking about other ways, not even scientific ways, that we could get the patent allowed, nothing illegal. But anyhow, so what the patent examiner said -- because he didn't understand the science that well -- is what we did was obvious. So I thought, "How could he think that?" because every time I gave a talk on this everybody told me it was impossible, it couldn't work. I wondered whether scientists had ever written that down -- not just insult me to my face -- whether they'd actually ever even written it down. So I scoured the literature to see what anybody had written on me. And actually I found an article in 1979, a number of years after we wrote our article, that actually was very interesting, because they referred to our work and they wrote -- and I'll just give you a quote -- they said, "Folkman and Langer..." myself, "...have reported some surprising results..." They used those words, "...that clearly demonstrate the opposite of what scientists had thought before." So I showed that quote to our lawyer, and he said, "That's very interesting." He said, "I'm going to fly down and talk to the patent examiner." And the patent examiner said to the lawyer, he said, "You know," he said, "I didn't realize that." He said, "If Dr. Langer can get affidavits from the five people who wrote that quote, that they really wrote that quote, I will allow that patent." So I wrote them, and all five of them were nice enough to say that they really wrote it! And we got the patent.

I was pretty naive about this. I had worked on this for nine or ten years. Nobody was using it, but then one company and then a second company -- one in animal health and one in human health -- wanted to license it, and they actually gave me a consulting fee, and grant money, and I was so excited about this I got a better car, and I had money to support our lab. But these companies were very large. They were multibillion-dollar companies. And what happened was -- even though they gave us grant money at MIT-- that what happened is, they themselves would do maybe one or two experiments over a year or two, and if they didn't work out right -- and in science most things don't work out right the first time -- they just gave up. So a few years later, one of my friends at MIT, Alex Klibanov, he said, "Bob, why don't we just start a company ourselves?" So I was able to get these patents back, and we started a little company, Enzytech, and that later merged with our downstairs neighbor to become Alkermes. They used these microspheres to develop drug delivery systems for all kinds of drugs.

Some of them can treat cancer. One of them has actually been used in over 5 million schizophrenic patients. There are ones for treating alcoholism and narcotic addiction. Many of these are now on the market that have affected many millions of people. To move to the future of some of the things we're doing now, we can use a lot of these same principles, not only to create little microspheres, but even nanoparticles that can zoom in and hopefully someday provide a new way of thinking about treating cancer and other diseases.

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