A pioneer in tissue engineering and the use of plastics to deliver drugs has won the biggest U.S. award in medicine, the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.
Officials at the center say Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Langer's groundbreaking research with polymers, or plastics, has revolutionized the field of drug delivery systems.
Professor Langer, a chemical engineer, was cited for a prolific body of work that includes surgically implanted devices to deliver and regulate medication. "What they talked about was the work we have done on bio-materials and how it could be used in different kinds of drug delivery systems. By drug delivery systems, I mean implants that could be used to treat cancer or cardiovascular stents, the drug- eluding stent," he said.
Professor Langer says the best known commercial use of his research are plastic transdermal patches that are used to help people stop smoking or to deliver nitroclycerine.
The awards committee also cited Professor Langer's work in tissue engineering, which has led to the development of artificial skin used to treat burn patients. He says more applications are still in the very early stages.
"What we did was we created this general principle, along with Jay Vacanti, a surgeon that I work with at Harvard Medical School, about how you could grow cells on plastics in a certain type of three dimensional format. If you add the right chemicals to it and use the right plastics, what we found is that in animals sometimes, and we have done it with people, that you could possibly make a tissue," he said.
Professor Langer says he is hopeful that his work in plastics and that of his colleagues will one day be used in gene therapy. "Right now it is very hard to do gene therapy on patients and we are hoping to find some polymers or plastics that might help in that area too and also deliver some of the newer molecules that are possibly going to be drugs some day like certain types of RNA (ribonucleic acid)," he said.
Professor Langer says he is thinking about using part of the money from the award to help sponsor science education projects.
The awards committee says this year's award had special significance because Robert Langer was born at Albany Hospital, the precursor to the Albany Medical Center.
New York City businessman Morris Silverman established the prize five years ago to promote biomedical research and encourage efforts to improve health care. Mr. Silverman, who was born and educated in the area of Albany, New York, the state capital, has made a $50 million commitment to the award. It is the second largest medical research award in the world after the Nobel Prize.