Page last updated at 14:45 GMT, Wednesday, 11 June 2008 15:45 UK

Honour for biomaterials pioneer

Robert Langer
Professor Robert Langer pioneered biomedicines

One of the most prolific inventors in medicine has won the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize.

Professor Robert Langer's biomaterials research has allowed for more accurate and controlled release of drugs into patients' bodies.

His work has had a significant impact on fighting cancer and heart disease, with more than 100 million people using medicines delivered via his designs.

The 800,000 euros award is seen as an unofficial Nobel Prize for technology.

It is given every second year for a technology that "significantly improves the quality of human life, today and in the future".

Professor Langer received the award at a ceremony in Helsinki, Finland.

He told BBC News: "I am just thrilled and shocked. It's a wonderful honour and I feel very, very lucky."

His work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology involved finding a way to gradually release drug molecules into a patient's body.

Too large

The problem was that drug molecules were too large to slip through the microscopic holes in any of the available polymers (synthetic materials) that encapsulated the medicine.

His solution was to develop a polymer with a three-dimensional matrix structure that allowed drug molecules to pass through and into a patient's system.

We're working on new biomaterials, working on a lot of nanotechnology to deliver drugs right to the cells and working on nanoparticles to deliver genetic material
Professor Robert Langer

He began his work in 1974 and by the early 1990s his polymers were being used in wafers to deliver medicines directly into the brains of cancer patients.

The wafers represented the biggest change in treatment for brain cancer patients in 25 years.

He said: "We were the first to show how to deliver large molecules [of drugs]; that was the initial innovation.

"We came up with a way of creating very complex, porous systems that enabled you to release very large molecules.

"To be fair, when we first did it I am not sure we totally understood exactly how it worked."

He added "But we also developed a lot of new materials that are now used in controlled release and also advanced the whole area of tissue engineering."

The Millennium Technology Prize awarded Professor Langer 800,000 euro while five other technologists shortlisted for the prize each received 115,000 euros.

The shortlisted laureates were Sir Alec Jeffreys, creator of DNA fingerprinting; Professor David Payne, co-inventor of an optical amplifier which transformed telecommunications; his co-inventors, Prof Emmanual Desurvire and Dr Randy Giles; and Dr Andrew Viterbi, whose eponymous algorithm aids modern communications.

The two previous recipients of the Millennium Technology Prize are Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, and Shuji Nakamura, creator of energy efficient LEDs.

New avenues

Professor Langer told BBC News: "The fact that controlled release of drugs is helping so many people gives me the greatest satisfaction.

"It's certainly the most rewarding thing."

Professor Langer's research has spawned more than a dozen biotechnology firms and led to new avenues of research into biomaterials.

His polymer research led to the design of new kind of biomaterials that can be used as artificial tissues, such as skin, cartilage, liver and other cells.

The idea is to make a temporary structure for the cells that can grow around and within the polymer material. When the natural tissue is strong enough, the artificial "scaffold" dissolves.

Professor Langer has also pioneered remote-control systems in which the rate of drug release can be controlled by ultrasound and magnetic fields.

The work has resulted in the early development of so-called pharmacies on a chip, in which a range of medicines are delivered into a body as and when they are needed.

Professor Langer runs a lab of 100 biotechnicians at MIT, and holds more than 500 patents on technology.

He said the laboratory continued to pioneer new treatments.

"We're working on new biomaterials, working on a lot of nanotechnology to deliver drugs right to the cells and working on nanoparticles to deliver genetic material.

"We're also doing a lot in the area of tissue engineering, creating new organs."

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