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Vol. LXVI, No. 5
February 28, 2014
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Langer Makes a Career of Doing the Impossible

Dr. Robert Langer

Dr. Robert Langer

With a list of accolades that might make anyone blush, Dr. Robert Langer’s career as an engineer and David H. Koch institute professor at MIT appears to have been thoroughly charmed by the STEM deities. So it was surprising to hear—over the course of his hour-long Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series talk on Jan. 29—of the rejection that characterized his early career.

As a young chemical engineer just out of school in Boston during the 1970s gas shortage, Langer found himself awash in job offers. “I went and interviewed at oil companies—20 offers, 4 from Exxon alone. It wasn’t like I was that great, they just had a lot of job openings.”

Despite the wealth of opportunity, Langer craved more from a career than pursuit of profit. In an attempt to transition into academia based on his graduate experience developing chemistry curricula, he sent more than 40 application letters to local universities with potential assistant professorships. Not one replied.

“I guess I wasn’t in the right box, the chemistry education box,” he recalls. “So that wasn’t going real well. Starting to think how else I could use my chemical engineering background to help people, I thought about medicine. I wrote to a lot of hospitals and medical schools and they didn’t write back either.”

Langer finally landed a spot in noted cancer researcher Dr. Judah Folkman’s lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. There, he began to work on isolating large molecules capable of inhibiting the growth of blood vessels and developing degradable polymer scaffolds to control the release of such inhibitors.

The stakes were high; if successful, the findings could become a viable treatment for cancer and help reduce deaths due to metastases, the leading cause of cancer mortality. But Folkman’s hypothesis of angiogenesis-driven tumor growth was still unproven at the time and had many detractors.

So even after achieving some career stability, Langer continued to face rejection. The one company at the time doing similar work, for which Folkman served as a scientific advisor, refused to help because the proposed approach was deemed as likely as a person walking through a wall.

Langer (c) is joined by NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman (l) and NIBIB director Dr. Roderic Pettigrew.

Langer (c) is joined by NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman (l) and NIBIB director Dr. Roderic Pettigrew.

Photos: Kate Egan

Describing the audience reaction to his first scientific presentation on achieving a constant rate of medication release with specially engineered microspheres, Langer said: “I stepped off the podium and a bunch of people came up and said, ‘We don’t believe anything you just said.’ ”

Around the same time, Langer had also started filing for patents, hoping to entice private industry to help translate some of his findings from bench to bedside. A skeptical patent examiner repeatedly turned him down until Langer was able to obtain affidavits from researchers affirming their by-then years’-old acknowledgment of the promise and novelty of his work.

In all, 28 years would pass from publication in Science of the initial, in vivo proof-of-concept study to FDA approval of the first angiogenesis inhibitor, bevacizumab (Avastin), in 2004. During that time, Langer continued to tackle tough questions in biomedical technology such as designing novel drug delivery systems and biomaterials.

Still, reviewers claimed the projects he proposed were impossible and still Langer refused to be deterred. Instead, he accepted each challenge, faced every claim of impossibility and turned the research world on its head—in the process, fostering the careers of some of the most lauded engineers, educators and innovators today.

That the veritable flood of discoveries that have come to define Langer’s place in the scientific pantheon was fed by a wellspring of rejection and incredulity speaks to a theory put forth by the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke: “Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: It’s completely impossible. It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing. I said it was a good idea all along.”

The videocast of Langer’s talk, “Biomaterials and Biotechnology: From the Discovery of Angiogenesis Inhibitors to the Development of Drug Delivery Systems and the Foundation of Tissue Engineering,” can be viewed at http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=13563.


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