Chemistry and Biochemistry

Pioneering the Impossible

Posted: Feb 27, 2013

Forget the bonnets and handcarts. Bring out the stem cells and microchips.

A modern pioneer came to BYU last week. Dr. Robert Langer from MIT shared his own experience and trailblazing wisdom in biochemistry engineering at the annual Izatt-Christensen Lecture.

“I definitely did it when it was unpopular, and I certainly did a lot of experimental work when people felt that chemical engineering was purely mathematics,” said Dr. Langer.

Langer hasn’t lost a humble, sincere presence, despite having written well over 1,000 articles, having more than 800 issued and pending patents worldwide, and receiving over 220 major awards. There’s a reason Time Magazine and CNN named Dr. Langer one of the 100 most influential people in the US in 2002.

“He seems to be a pretty humble man while still being enthusiastic about his work,” said Andrew Broadbent, a senior studying chemical engineering. “This presentation helped me decide to shift my priorities this semester completely. He’s given me a new enthusiasm.”

Dr. Langer shared that when he received his PhD in chemical engineering from MIT in 1974, he didn’t know what field he wanted to get into. The oil business was booming at the time, but he wanted to do something that would impact people’s lives in a more real way.

“The first part of his presentation, in which he described the way he found his career, I really identified with that because that’s the position I find myself in now,” Broadbent said.

Dr. Langer entered the medical field working with Dr. Judah Folkman, a scientist with the radical and unpopular idea of stopping blood vessel growth to halt the spread of cancer.

After substantial work, Dr. Langer found that many of his inventions remained on paper and in the lab, but were not recognized by the larger medical community. So he decided to start his own businesses to distribute the information.

“If you’re not your own champion nobody else is going to be,” Dr. Langer explained.

Dr. Langer’s inventions have helped millions of patients—from microchips placed in people’s bodies to release medicine in exact dosages to chemotherapy wafers that safely dissolve in the brain when placed near brain tissue that could become cancerous.

“My husband’s cousin just died of brain cancer last year, so just watching the part about the brain tumor—you hear about these developments and it’s going to change a lot of people’s lives,” said Sarah Hedengren, electrical engineering alum. “I just thought it was like science fiction, but real!”

Dr. Langer’s lab is currently working on a cure for paralysis through tissue engineering and the use of stem cells. So far, Dr. Langer’s lab has been able to help paralyzed monkeys and rats to walk again.

“It made me think that maybe there are solutions to things that we didn’t really think were possible,” said Karyn Garrison, a senior studying advertising.

Dr. Langer continues to mark the trail for biochemists and bioengineers as he moves forward into new and exciting frontiers.

By Curtis Penfold, College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences