A Touch of Drug Delivery Magic
Sitting Down With… Robert S. Langer, David H. Koch Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US.
Stephanie Sutton |
How has drug delivery research held your interest for so long?
Over the years, the field has grown tremendously and there are now a lot of journals devoted entirely to this space. Ever since I started out in drug delivery, new questions have kept popping up. Can we synthesize biodegradable materials? Can we target different cells? Would non-invasive delivery, like aerosols work? Can transdermal patches deliver complex molecules? I kept going and my lab continues to keep going! We've recently published a paper in Science about a pill that could possibly deliver proteins orally, which has caused a lot of excitement. But beyond proteins there are even more challenges – what about delivering RNA-based drugs or gene editing therapies? Challenges keep arising and we will keep trying to solve them.
What have been the main turning points of your career?
Working with Judah Folkman at Boston Children’s Hospital was the first major turning point. By training I’m a chemical engineer. Almost all of my friends went into the oil industry, but I wanted to do something different that would really help people. I applied for post doc positions in medicine and I was turned down a lot. I ended up working with Judah in the 1970s. I didn’t know much about biology or medicine and I was the only chemical engineer at the hospital; the experience was eye opening. Juda was a visionary scientist and I was so lucky to have him as a mentor. He had the idea that if you could stop blood vessels then maybe you could stop cancer. And the work eventually led to the world’s first angiogenesis inhibitors (although they weren’t used in approved drugs for many years). One of my jobs was to develop a drug delivery system to deliver the molecules. I had the idea of using a slow release polymer in the body to release the molecule.
This work was another turning point. At the time, the literature suggested you couldn’t use polymers to deliver large molecules, but I didn’t read any of the articles that said that so I tried anyway! I found hundreds of ways of getting it not to work, and one way to make it work. I discovered a way to create microspheres, which could deliver molecules of any size. We published a paper in Nature in 1976 saying how we could do it and a paper in Science on the isolation of the first angiogenesis inhibitors, but there was a lot of scepticism; many said the papers were wrong and didn’t make sense.
After my post doc, I applied for a lot of different chemical engineering jobs, but no one wanted to hire me! Eventually I got a job at MIT, but then the guy who hired me left. And the rest of the faculty told me that I should leave too! It wasn’t a great start but I persevered!
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