A genius of science to be honored

Robert Langer, a 'kid from Albany' who became MIT professor, to be honored at White House ceremony.

President Bush will bestow one of the nation's highest scientific awards on Albany native Robert Langer later this month, honoring the chemical engineer's brilliant mind, if not his clumsy hands.

Langer, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, will receive the National Medal for Science at the White House on July 27. Langer's mother, Mary, who lives in Slingerlands, will be at his side.

"I won't be surprised when I hear he has won the Nobel Prize," said Robert Linhardt, a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor who trained under Langer.

Langer's work explores the intersection of bioengineering and material science. He synthesized a plastic that allows large molecules of drugs to pass through and fight cancer at the site of a tumor. The breakthrough eased the side effects of chemotherapy.

He created a biodegradable microchip that can be implanted after a brain tumor is removed to slowly release cancer-killing drugs. He also developed structures that promote tissue growth, allowing doctors to grow artificial skin for burn victims.

"I always thought of myself as this kid from Albany, New York, and I feel incredibly lucky to be in the company of past and current recipients of the Medal of Science," Langer said. "It's a very remarkable group."

Langer has authored more than 1,000 scientific papers, holds more than 550 patents and has won numerous awards, including the Draper Prize, the Lemelson-MIT Prize for Invention and Innovation and the Albany Medical Center Prize.

Linhardt acknowledged Langer's brilliant mind, but warned he wasn't so good in the lab.

"I can remember him only once working himself in the lab," he said. "Everyone scattered. They were afraid he was going to set the lab on fire."

Linhardt worked as a postdoctoral student in Langer's laboratory at MIT in 1979. At the time, Langer only had three students under him. Today, he has 100 and the Langer Lab is the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world.

"He's very actively involved in his laboratory and their ideas even though he doesn't go into the lab and do the research himself," he said. "He's very good at generating ideas. He thinks in a very creative, nonlinear way and jumps from one idea to the next."

Balancing test tubes and chemicals may not be Langer's strength, but he has a gift for motivating, cajoling and cheering his researchers toward breakthroughs and an ability to think "outside the box," Linhardt said.

Judah Folkman, a doctor at Children's Hospital Boston and Langer's mentor, invited Langer to solve a problem the hospital was struggling with. Putting casts on newborns often caused blisters and pain because of the heat generated as the cast hardened. The doctors thought they needed to put more padding under the cast, but Langer said, why not address the heat?

He asked for some powdered urea, the chemical in urine, and demonstrated how it could turn a glass of warm water ice cold.

"He's an example of a real genius," Folkman said. "A genius thinks about a problem in a way the most other people wouldn't get."

Langer went further. His lab started looking at whether urea could cool a forming hurricane.

"He's a very unusual person," Linhardt said. "He takes big leaps over the rest of us. When I come up with my next idea, it's derivative, it comes from the first idea. His ideas jump big distances from the first idea and are as unconnected as a cast from a hurricane."

James Barba, president and CEO of Albany Medical Center, called Langer a national treasure.

"His ability to do tissue engineering, his ability to develop the concept of time-release medication, his ability to create synthetic skin, and I could go on and on," Barba said. "All of these things make life better for everyone. That's the definition of a treasure. He's a wonderful asset for all of us."

Barba was on the selection committee that chose Langer for the Albany Medical Center Prize. Barba boasted that Langer was born at Albany Med and has kept his ties to the area, including an appearance as commencement speaker at the Albany Medical College graduation.

Langer is a contender for the Nobel Prize, Barba said.

"If you take a look at the body of his work over the span of his career, it has been so prolific an so important that it would be hard for a committee, like the Nobel Prize committee, to overlook it," he said.

As for Langer, he said his work isn't done.

"I feel like I've accomplished something, but there's a lot more that I want to accomplish," he said.

His lab is researching ways to deliver gene therapy into cells safely, to make new tissues for organs and the spinal cord, and design microchip that can be assess the body's signals and deliver the appropriate medicine.

Helping people is his goal, but teaching the next generation of scientists, researchers and thinkers motivates him, too. About 150 of his former students have become college professors.

Langer admits his lab skills may be a little rusty. He's too busy thinking up his next idea.

Source : Times Union Albany

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