Robert S. Langer, a chemical engineer and the David H. Koch Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received the 2013 Wolf Prize in Chemistry on May 5 in a ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem. The award was presented by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
The Wolf Prizes, which are sometimes called the Israeli Nobels, are given by the Wolf Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Israel that honors scientists and artists for achievements that benefit humanity. Langer received the $100,000 prize in recognition of his work on polymer systems for drug delivery and tissue engineering.
Notably, he invented polyanhydride polymers with tunable degradation properties to controllably release macromolecular drugs over sustained periods of time. These polymers steadily erode in water, releasing macromolecules embedded in them. The erosion rate can be tuned by changing the chemical properties of the polymers.
Langer’s first therapeutic success in this area was with Gliadel wafers, which he developed in collaboration with Henry Brem, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University. The wafers are surgically implanted to deliver a drug that treats brain cancer. Langer went on to develop many other polymer systems that release drugs in response to magnetic, ultrasonic, or biological stimuli.
In addition to his drug delivery work, Langer “has been the leader in designing bioabsorbable polymers to serve as scaffolds for holding mammalian cells in place during tissue reconstruction,” according to the Wolf Prize committee. Langer’s work in this area in collaboration with Joseph P. Vacanti of Harvard Medical School led to the first approved artificial skin based on synthetic polymers for burn patients.
Langer’s work has resulted in more than 800 patents. He has founded or cofounded at least 25 companies to commercialize his research.
Langer has received numerous other awards, including the 2006 National Medal of Science. He received the Priestley Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the American Chemical Society, in 2012.
The Wolf Prizes, which were established by German-born inventor and philanthropist Ricardo Wolf, have been awarded since 1978. In addition to chemistry, prizes are given in agriculture, mathematics, medicine, physics, and the arts.