Prof. Robert Langer Wins Largest Award for Technology Innovation

Robert S. Langer ScD ’74, an MIT Institute professor and a leader in the development of controlled drug delivery and tissue engineering, has won the world’s largest award for technology innovation.

Langer received the Millennium Technology Prize Wednesday from Technology Academy Finland for his research, which advanced the treatment of cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses. Winners receive 800,000 euros, or about $1.2 million.

Langer was given the prize in Helsinki Wednesday by President Tarja Halonen. The award is given every two years to the developers of technology that “significantly improves quality of human life.”

“He and his laboratory have pioneered the use of new materials to allow drugs to be delivered to patients in new and very flexible ways,” said Tyler E. Jacks, the director of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for which Langer heads a laboratory.

Langer said he developed the materials for controlled drug delivery in the 1970s while successfully working with oncologist Judah Folkman to inhibit the growth of blood vessels, a process used to treat cancerous tumors as well as certain forms of blindness.

“I was trying to figure out a way to stop blood vessels from growing, and that led me to this,” Langer said in an interview. “Now today, there are new treatments for people with prostate cancer based on this, schizophrenia, and heart disease.”

Controlled drug delivery is commonly used in heart stents, which clear blocked heart arteries and slowly emit drugs to prevent the arteries from closing up after the insertion of the stent. More than 100 million people a year benefit from advanced drug delivery systems, according to Technology Academy Finland.

Langer, who has taught at MIT since 1977, runs the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world at the university and has written about 900 research papers. In 2005, he was made an Institute Professor, an honor given to a handful of MIT professors that gives them more academic freedom.

He is working toward developing nanotechnology that would allow for the precise delivery of genes and drugs to specific cells.

“I feel very pleased that we’ve been able to accomplish some things,” Langer said.