Biotech pioneer Robert Langer has over 800 patents to his name and has launched two dozen companies, which develop everything from tumor-fighting nanoparticles to anti-frizz hair products. Yet Langer says his proudest accomplishment is teaching some 500 students and post-docs, now professors and start-up leaders themselves.
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IRA FLATOW, HOST:
Robert Langer is sort of a modern-day Thomas Edison. He holds over 800 patents. He's launched two dozen startups making an eclectic variety of stuff from tumor-zapping nanoparticles to biosensors and blood tests, synthetic spinal cords, even anti-frizz hair products, all of this originating from the same lab. And recently, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. He's already won the National Medal of Science, after all.
How does he do it? How are these great ideas born? And how do you create a place, like the Langer Lab, where innovation and creative thinking can thrive? Well, let's ask him. Robert Langer is an institute professor in the Departments of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, Mechanical Engineering at MIT in Cambridge. He joins us today from a studio on the campus. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Langer.
ROBERT LANGER: Thank you very much.
FLATOW: Did you start work in a garage like David Packard, Steve Jobs, people like that?
LANGER: No, I didn't. I started doing some research at Cornell University when I was an undergrad student, and then MIT as a graduate student, and then Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Med as a post doc.
FLATOW: And how did you move on from there?
LANGER: Well, after being at Children's Hospital, I went back to MIT, and...
LANGER: ...I've been there ever since.
FLATOW: What do you think that some great inventors of our time - I'll include you and Elon Musk and Dean Kamen and people like that - what do you have in common?
LANGER: Well, I don't know. Those are some pretty great inventors. I think probably, though, people like that have a tremendous amount of persistence. They probably, also, aren't necessarily bound by what I guess I'd call conventional wisdom, which is how you're sort of supposed to think. I suppose those would be some of the characteristics.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. So does it take some sort of stick-to-itiveness? In other words, you don't care what people think that you're doing. You're self-confident in your methods and techniques and where - and what you have in mind.
LANGER: I don't know that they're necessarily self-confident. I don't know that I'm so self-confident, and I'm not sure about the other people you mentioned, but I think it does take stick-to-itiveness. I mean, you know, I think in science you fail much more often than you succeed, and you just have to be persistent and never give up. And then also a lot of times, people will tell you that your ideas aren't going to work and things like that, and so you have to just keep hanging in there.
FLATOW: Do you ever make anything, and then you think, this is a great idea, but what the heck do I do with it?
LANGER: Oh, all the time. In fact, we just published a paper in science about a month ago where we came up with some new materials that when a little bit of moisture goes in, it starts moving all over the place, and it can generate a lot of energy and things like that. And - but we're really not sure what the, you know, we're really not sure what the best application is for something like that.
FLATOW: And so do you then give it away? Or certainly, if it's valuable, you're not going to let people, you know, take it for nothing.
LANGER: Well, I think it depends on what you're doing. I mean, in our case, I mean, we certainly do write patents, but we publish everything we do. So anybody's welcome to try to use it and come up with, hopefully, good uses for it. So everything we do like in an academic institution is - you know, goes to the public in that sense. But sometimes, what you also want to do is - because it's hard to, particularly in medicine, to get enough funding to do the work as you do want to have patent so that people, investors are willing to support you so that you can take things, for example, into the clinical trials and things like that.
FLATOW: Talking with Robert Langer. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. If you want to get in on our conversation, you can also tweet us, @SCIFRI, at S-C-I-F-R-I. And talking about invention, engineering, whatever, with Robert Langer trying to pick his brain. What are you most proud of, Dr. Langer?
LANGER: Well, I'm probably most proud of my students. I mean, I've had about 500 students and post-docs and about half of them have gone on to terrific faculty positions. Many people are - many of them are deans of different colleges and - deans of engineering or deans of medicine. A lot of them are department chairs, many hold endowed chairs. I think I have 11 of them are members of the National Academy of Engineering. And another half, probably another 250 or so have gone on to help start companies or had a high positions of companies and have created all kinds of new technologies and inventions for the world.
FLATOW: All right. We're going to come back and talk about some of those inventions and engineering with Robert Langer right after this break. Stay with us. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking, this hour, about science innovation, invention engineering with Robert Langer, Institute professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering, bioengineering, mechanical engineering at MIT. Our number 1800-898-8255. Looking at all those different departments at MIT, do they contribute to each other when you get an idea? Can you crowd source it to each other, do they get it on the top view? Do you all seek thank kind of inclusion of everybody?
LANGER: Well, what happens is this, have students from all those all departments in our lab and actually other departments too. And in addition, I end up collaborating with different faculty in those departments. And also, I should say, some of my former students, they're all faculty in those three departments as well.
FLATOW: Uh-huh. But do you think that's needed? That kind of cross-fertilization of ideas?
LANGER: Yeah, I think. Well, for what we do, I think it's very, very helpful. I think that when you, you know, we're combining biology with engineering. And so I think having that kind of cross-fertilization of ideas is - and skill sets is very, very helpful if you're trying to create kinds of new materials for medicine and things like that.
FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Terry in Brewster Town, Tennessee. Hi, Terry.
TERRY: Thank you, Ira and Dr. Langdon(ph). Dr. Langdon, how do you avoid the buying up and shelving of the technology or the good ideas by major corporations like has been changed with the patent laws recently?
LANGER: Yeah. Well, we patent our - I mean, we patent - MIT is pretty good at patenting things. Since we have quite a few patents as was mentioned, I think, in my introduction. So we do that, and a lot of times, what we've also done is to create small start-up companies with our students and to develop the technologies to, you know, to a large degree. So there are probably something like over 50 products, at least, that have come out from our lab that are actually now, being used during various stages of clinical trials.
FLATOW: We've heard so much about the U.S. falling behind in science and engineering, why think are so successful if we're so far behind?
LANGER: Well, I think, you know, what's happened, I think, is there's always got to be a frame of reference- the U.S. is still, I think, done well at MIT - I'd like to think, is doing well. But I feel I've been very fortunate in terms of having had great students and great collaborators my whole life and I think having, you know, when you work with related people, it's not that hard to be successful.
FLATOW: Well, do you think that's overblown that idea that we're - we don't produce enough qualified science and engineering students, do we?
LANGER: I think that - I think the concern is that we're slipping, and I think that that's true. I think that unfortunately, at the grammar school and high school level, I think that science education, and certainly engineering education, is not what it could be. And I think there have been various reports from like, the National Research Council a few years ago, like Rising Above The Gathering Storm had point out that the United States is, I think, sliding in significantly in these areas. So I think the concern is warranted.
FLATOW: But you will admit, and you have heard this from other researchers and engineers, that even though we may be slipping, there is something unique about American innovation, Yankee ingenuity of new ideas. Would you agree with that?
LANGER: I do agree with that. I think that it's - I think what happens is you have a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit in the United States. I mean, obviously, that's somewhat self-serving and I'm prejudiced. But I do think that the entrepreneurial spirit in the United States is terrific. People are willing to take risks. They are willing, sometimes, to go against conventional wisdom, and I also think the colleges in the United States are, you know, there was a lot of excellent colleges and universities. So I think that's - that that's right.
FLATOW: And why is that? Is there something about our culture or what?
LANGER: That's a very good question. You know, maybe it's in our genes and - but I think, you know, that that goes - some of it goes back to how America got founded in the first place, people were willing to take risks and I think people are continuing to be willing to take risks.
FLATOW: Can we get any ideas from outside of science? You know, stimulate you. Maybe from the arts, something you see in the theater, something you watch on Netflix?
LANGER: Oh, sure. All - yeah, all kinds of things. I mean, I've had ideas, for example, you know, one time I was watching a television show on PBS about how they made, for example, certain types of microchips in the computer industry and I thought about ways that we could kind of do - create a different kind of chip that might be able to deliver chemicals and - by remote control. And we actually did that with John Santini, one of our students, and Mike Cima, another professor at MIT. And now there's a company actually doing that and they're even in human clinical trials where you could do remote-control drug delivery.
And I've gotten other ideas. I remember one time I was reading Life magazine, and they were talking about cars of the future and how someday you could have a car that if it got in an accident, you'd just heat it up and it would snap back into shape. And so it occurred to me that we could make all kinds of materials that we could change their shapes by temperature or light or things like that. So, yeah, lots of time you can get different ideas from different sources.
FLATOW: What's that wire that when you heat it, it goes back? I can't think of the name of it. I'm having a senior moment.
LANGER: You mean Nitinol?
FLATOW: Nitinol, yes. Thank you very much.
FLATOW: I remember when that came out.
LANGER: Good memory.
LANGER: Now that you've thought of it.
FLATOW: I have to credit Charles Bergquist, my director, yelling it in my ear, so it's not me.
LANGER: I see.
FLATOW: Let's talk about other interesting things. Like how did you come up with this anti-frizz hair product? You weren't looking for that specifically, were you?
LANGER: No. Well, here, what happened is, you know, I - one of the venture groups that I've done a lot of work with is Polaris Ventures, and Jon Flint, who is a senior partner there and Amir Nashat, who is one of my former graduate students and now a general partner there, they were interested, you know, we've started - they've help to start a lot of medical companies. And one day they came to me and they were interested in starting a hair company. And so they said, well - one of the things they were interested in from talking with some of the hair people, hair stylists like Miss Di Rosa(ph) was could you come up with materials that would prevent frizz?
So we looked at this. And Dan Anderson and - who is one of my colleagues and myself, as well as others at the company, and we realized that pretty much every company in the world that makes an anti-frizz product uses exactly the same ingredient, silicone. And actually, that happens in medicine too. People sometimes use exactly the same thing, just some off-the-shelf thing. So we took a much more fundamental look at it and thought that we could come up with materials that would work better because they could keep water out better and also be much lighter on the hair. And so that's basically how we in the company came up with it, and it does quite well.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You must me intimately involved with nanoparticles, nano technology.
LANGER: Well, that's something we've worked on for many, many years, yes.
FLATOW: Do you ever wonder about where all these particles are going and winding up in nature?
LANGER: Well, we look at where they go in the human body, and I think we have a pretty good idea of that. Of course, our goal is - and a lot of what we do is to put anti-cancer drugs in them that - well, there's different goals, but that's one of the goals, is to put anti-cancer drugs in them and send them, you know, right to the tumor and hopefully no other place. But you can only do that to a certain degree.
But we've actually been doing that. And there's another little company, Bind Biosciences, that Omid Farokhzad, one of my former fellows who's now a professor at Harvard Med School and I help start, and you know, so they're actually treating patients with cancer right now in clinical trials.
FLATOW: What is the most underfunded, under-researched area of science and engineering or technology that could really use a boost?
LANGER: Well, I think all areas are underfunded, and I think they all need a boost, especially they need a boost, you know, starting today or tomorrow. So I think it's, you know, science is just such an important thing. It drives what we - what the whole country does technologically and the whole world. So I - and I don't know that you can cite a specific area. I mean some people might like to. But the fact is, is sometimes it's the areas that we don't even realize right now what discoveries are going to be made.
So you want to be able to have enough funding so that if somebody comes up with an out-of-the-box idea, that might change the world for which there's no real category that it can get funded. And that's going to get harder and harder.
FLATOW: Let's go to the phones: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Leo in Long Island. Hi, Leo. Leo, are you there?
FLATOW: Yes. Go ahead.
LEO: How are you?
FLATOW: Fine. Go ahead.
LEO: I just had a question. I just wanted to know what do you guys think about the energy situation that we're in in regards to primary fuel and (unintelligible) gasoline, and where do you see this in the next five to 10 years?
FLATOW: Hmm. Good question.
LANGER: Well, I don't know that I'm any expert on the energy situation. I mean, obviously, it's an area that needs a great deal of research. MIT is very active in that area, and I hope that with some of the work that's going on at MIT by others here, not myself, but others who are very active in it, that - and there's other places around the country too that are doing very good work that, you know, that real progress is made. That's another area where funding is going to be very important.
FLATOW: Let's go to Sean(ph) in Derba(ph), Wisconsin. Hi, Sean.
FLATOW: Hi there.
SEAN: My question is mainly about nanites(ph), nanobots. And how far have they come along in recent years. And would they ever be able to like - like we're starting to understand about DNA, and we're starting to implant, like, computer chips into the body to be able to do things. And I'm wondering if, like, we'd ever be able to combine the three and be able to actually have a baby created with like prosthetics or something like that.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. OK. Thanks for calling.
LANGER: Yeah, well, I think a lot depends how you define nanobots, but I think there are tremendous advances. And you know, we are working in some of those areas. We're working on all kinds of nanoparticles, nanoparticles that could target to different parts of the body and nanoparticles that could be used for more rapid diagnostics. And as I mentioned, we're also working on new kinds of microchips that you could implant and actually regulate them by remote control.
And I do think the opportunity to combine these things are there, though right now they all, you know, have a lot of technological hurdles on their own, so you want to solve the easier problems first, which is to do them individual and get them to the point where they're really helping people. And then maybe once you get there, they certainly could be combined.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how would you control where it goes?
LANGER: Well, what we've done is - with nanoparticles what we've done is put certain type of arrowhead on them and those arrowheads could be designed, depending on, let's say the cell's receptors that you're trying to go to. So there are certain receptors, for example, on some types of tumors and there are certain receptors on some types of blood vessels, for example. And so by having the right arrowhead that will go, take the nanoparticles to the right places, you can, you know, get more of it there.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Robert Langer. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Michael in Charleston, South Carolina. Hi, Michael.
MICHAEL: Hey, I enjoy your show. I have a 15-year-old daughter. She's into science and engineering and expresses her desire to go MIT one day. And wonder what courses she'll be taking. Are there any books that she could reading - she's in ninth grade - that would interest here and pique her interest to science more?
LANGER: Well, I think there's - well, first of all, in terms of what's good to do for a high school student, I think really the most important thing is just to learn the fundamentals, you know, learn really good chemistry and biology and physics and engineering if they have it. I think that's the most important thing. In terms - and if there's ever an opportunity to do research, for example, at the University of South Carolina or something like that, that would be also - or you know, also great. And Clemson. There's a lot of places that do good research there.
In terms of books, I mean I don't know. One of the things that sometimes always excites me are reading books about how people invented things and sometimes the struggles they have had. I remember the - there's one book called "The Last Lone Inventor," which is about the history of television and sort of the struggles that the guy who really invented television went through and, you know, sort of the process that he went through. And, by the way, when he did this, he was a high school student.
FLATOW: That's a kid. I'm trying to think his name.
LANGER: Philo Farnsworth.
FLATOW: Philo Farnsworth. How about a book about Nikola Tesla? Want to read about struggles.
LANGER: That would probably be interesting too.
LANGER: But all these stories are good because they show what people come up against and yet even though they came up against these things, they, you know, they made great inventions and made the world very different. Hopefully made it a much better place.
FLATOW: Let's go to Nick in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi, Nick. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
NICK: Hi. Thank you. My question was, I'm a math and physics teacher, and I'm wondering about how to inspire students to further their studies in math and science. And then I also delve in a little bit of project-based learning, wondering how do we get students to reach out to experts like you to get advice with the work they're doing in the classroom?
LANGER: Well, I think there's different things that you can do. I mean first, I think one of the things that I think is important is to make things like math and physics fun. And, you know, and sometimes that can be done by different kinds of games and things like that. I think if somebody, you know, and then there's various things that they can avail themselves of. You know, like there are conferences, for example, like the engineering - they're having what's called Global Grand Challenges. There's actually a conference in England next month and - but they've also - there's websites that the National Academy of Engineering has on this, and that may also be helpful for people to look at.
And when you look at these websites, they'll list people, like myself and others who are involved in these things, and really, I get letters from high school people all the time and I do my best to try to answer them, and I'm sure the others would too.
FLATOW: Did you have a mentor or a teacher who helped you out?
LANGER: Well, in high school I had a couple people who were helpful, Danny Canales(ph) and Glenda DeLong(ph). But as post-doc, that I had - there was a clinician who I worked with named Judah Folkman. And he was really a real inspiration to me. And I think working in his lab had a major impact on my life.
FLATOW: Pretty famous name. Judah Folkman.
LANGER: Yes. Well, he was a great man.
FLATOW: Yeah. And any last words you have for investors who are, you know, trying to get along?
LANGER: Well, always, I guess, what I say is that I think that a lot of times you'll come up with an idea or an invention. And a lot of people tell you that it won't work, that it's impossible. And I think that's very rarely true. I think if you really believe in yourself, if you work hard, you keep being persistent, that you'll end up doing pretty well in those inventions.
FLATOW: You should know, you got 800 patents and two giant medals. Thank you, Robert Langer, for taking time to be with us today. Good luck to you. We'll be watching.
LANGER: Thank you very much.
FLATOW: Robert Langer is institute professor in the departments of chemical engineering, bioengineering, mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
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