Press release | 9.6.2016
Lisbon/Munich, 9 June 2016 - A new generation of anti-cancer drugs "starves" tumours. US chemical engineer Robert Langer (67) invented biodegradable plastics that encapsulate powerful drugs. Implanted at the tumour site, the "bioplastics" dissolve for targeted release. They can also be moulded into ingestible capsules, into cardiovascular stents, and into "scaffolding" supporting the growth of new body tissue. For this accomplishment, the European Patent Office (EPO) honoured Langer with the European Inventor Award in the "Non-European countries", one of five award categories, at a ceremony held today in Lisbon.
"Langer's invention of bioplastics has opened up a new approach to fighting some of the most aggressive cancers," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli. "Anti-cancer drugs can be targeted towards tumours for maximum effect without damaging healthy tissue, and the applications are equally impressive in heart surgery and reconstructive medicine."
The award ceremony at Lisbon's MEO Arena was attended by some 600 prominent guests from the areas of politics, business, intellectual property and science, and opened by the EPO President, Portugal's Prime Minister António Costa and European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas.
The prestigious award, now in its 11th year, is presented annually by the EPO to recognise outstanding inventors from Europe and around the world who have made an exceptional contribution to social development, technological progress and economic growth. The winners were chosen by an independent international jury out of nearly 400 individuals and teams of inventors put forward for this year's award.
Langer's approach solves a fundamental problem in cancer therapies: when injected into the bloodstream, highly potent anti-cancer drugs lose effectiveness on their way to the site of the tumour. Or even worse, the drugs may harm healthy tissue instead of focusing their effects on fighting disease. This precarious balance is especially important when combatting glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a difficult-to-treat brain cancer surrounded by sensitive nerve tissue. Langer's bioplastics are shaped into "wafers" loaded with cancer-starving drugs that disrupt blood flow to the tumour. Implanted directly above the tumour, thereby bypassing the blood-brain barrier, the drugs are released once the bioplastics are broken down by the body's metabolism. The approach has ushered in a new era of targeted therapies: over 20 million patients have been treated with angiogenesis-inhibiting substances, and other therapies derived from Langer's bioplastics have benefited more than one million people.
Langer's patented invention is the result of decades of dedicated research. Already in 1971, Langer and fellow physicians at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) envisioned a delivery vector that would transport the drugs right where they are needed: the site of the tumour. At first, the scientific community met Langer's bold vision with scepticism. "After my first major scientific talk in 1976 a number of older scientists came up to me and told me: 'We don't believe anything you just said," said Langer. But the scientist, who today heads the world's largest biomedical engineering laboratory, stayed the course. He spent almost 28 years perfecting the implantable bioplastics technology after publishing his initial findings. In the first two years alone, the researcher experimented with over 200 polymer variations.
Scientific expertise and an unparalleled work ethic have made Langer one of the world's most prolific inventors. Named the most-cited engineer in history by Science magazine, he has authored over 13 000 articles and contributed to 1 100 patents, with inventions licensed by 300 pharmaceutical companies.
"My advice to young people is to dream big dreams and don't give up on those dreams," says Langer. "Do things that you love doing and also recognize that conventional wisdom is not always correct."
Note to editors: availability of AV and photo materials on 9 June 2016
Contacts at the EPO in Munich, Germany
Director External Communication