(Drug) Delivery Man
The idea for a "pharmacy on a chip" came to Robert Langer one evening 10 years ago. What if you implanted an electronic device, he wondered, to control the distribution of drugs in the body? The question triggered mountains of research that should change how medications are administered and even make them more effective.
The drug-developing chip is just one of the breakthroughs to come out of Langer's world-renowned lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston. Langer, 57, a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, is so creative—and so astonishingly prolific—that it's hard to imagine another scientist poised to have a major impact in so many different ways over the next decade. He has generated more than 300 patents (with another 250 pending), authored or coauthored more than 800 articles in scientific journals, cofounded more than a dozen biotech companies, and licensed his lab's discoveries to more than 150 others. His work encompasses biomedical plastics, drug development, gene therapy, and tissue engineering.
But Langer's specialty is drug delivery. His challenge: The body instinctively resists foreign objects, so it dilutes or alters many drugs before they get to their destination. Other drugs, including many types of chemotherapy, kill healthy cells en route to attacking diseases. So Langer creates unconventional ways of safely getting medicine where it belongs. His first innovation was a tiny biodegradable piece of plastic that slowly released proteins that inhibited tumor growth as the plastic dissolved. That concept, which peers and luminaries alike dismissed as impossible, put the then 27-year-old chemical engineer on the biomedical map in 1976.
MicroChips, the company Langer cofounded with John Santini, one of the 60 or so brainiacs in his MIT lab, is making the new electronic drug chip a reality. Residing under the skin, it consists of thousands of tiny, individually sealed reservoirs containing one or more drugs. These reservoirs can be programmed to open at a specific time or operated by a wireless remote control; an electrical impulse melts a gold seal, releasing the well's contents. Testing in humans should begin in a couple of years.
It's an elegant solution, one Langer believes will improve millions of lives. "I'd rather do revolutionary than evolutionary work," he says. We'd rather he did, too.