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Janssen Award Symposium Spotlights Robert Langer, Biomaterials Pioneer and Beloved Mentor

Published March 06, 2024
By David Freeman

Self-boosting vaccines. Regeneration of diseased tissues and missing limbs. Organs on a chip.

Such life-saving advances in biotechnology—some already in existence and others in the works–took the spotlight on February 8, 2024, when thousands of attendees around the world gathered online for the Paul Janssen Award Symposium in honor of Robert S. Langer, ScD, a renowned chemical engineer and entrepreneur best known for his pioneering work in drug delivery systems and tissue engineering.

Dr. Langer, whose work has led to new treatments for heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and other ailments, is the 2023 recipient of the Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research. Given annually by Johnson & Johnson to a scientist or scientists who have made a “transformational contribution toward the improvement of human health,” the award includes a sculpture and a $200,000 cash prize. Eight of the 23 scientists who have received the award have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Impactful Research from MIT

Hosted by The New York Academy of Scientists and the Dr. Paul Janssen Award, with sponsorship by J&J, the event featured a keynote address by Dr. Langer as well as talks by a trio of eminent researchers who trained with him at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is one of a handful of faculty members who hold the prestigious title of Institute Professor.

The other researchers, who detailed their own research and described Dr. Langer’s contributions as a scientist and mentor, were Cato T. Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D., professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Connecticut and CEO of the Cato T. Laurencin Institute for Regenerative Engineering; Kristi Anseth, Ph.D., professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Colorado; and Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering and medicine at Columbia University.

The event began with remarks from Academy president and CEO Nicholas B. Dirks who hailed Dr. Langer as “a luminary figure” whose work “reflects a visionary spirit that advances science while demonstrating the importance of this research for the public good, inspiring the next generation of innovators and scientists to follow in his path.” Following Professor Dirks, William N. Hait, M.D., Ph.D., Executive Vice President, Chief External Innovation and Medical Officer, and a member of the Johnson & Johnson Executive Committee, praised Dr. Langer for his groundbreaking work at the intersection of biomaterials and biotechnology. He also highlighted Dr. Langer’s remarkable productivity, with over 1,400 patents issued or pending and nearly 1,600 publications.

Blazing a Trail in Biotechnology

Dr. Langer said he was humbled to have received the award and then went on to explain the roundabout way he got his start in biotechnology. After getting a chemical engineering degree from Cornell University in 1974, he said, he turned multiple job offers from oil companies. “I just didn’t want to spend my life doing that,” he recalled. He wrote to universities, medical schools, and hospitals, hoping to land a job in science curriculum development or in medicine—but got nowhere, he said, because he lacked the right pedigree for such work.

Ultimately, Judah Folkman, a Boston surgeon with a reputation for hiring “unusual people” to work in his lab, brought on the young engineer with the task of developing tiny particles that release molecules that block the growth of blood vessels within tumors. Blocking this growth, the “anti-angiogenesis” theory went, would starve tumors of the oxygen and nutrients they need to grow.

Many scientists said the task was impossible. But Dr. Langer was undeterred. “I spent several years working on this, and I literally found several hundred ways to get this to not work,” he said. “But eventually we got one way to get it to work, and I was able to make these tiny little particles.”

The First Anti-angiogenesis Cancer Drug to Win FDA Approval

In a 1976 paper published in the journal Science, Dr. Langer showed that microparticles that deliver macromolecules could indeed inhibit blood vessel formation in tumors. Years later, he patented the technology, and in 2004 Avastin (bevacizumab) became the first anti-angiogenesis cancer drug to win FDA approval. It and other drugs based on the technology are now used to treat various cancers, as well as the vision-robbing eye disorders macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, which are caused by abnormal vascularization in the back of the eye.

Dr. Langer and his collaborators went on to develop polymer materials that could be tailored to release drugs within the body continuously at a specified rate—a functionality that they thought might prove useful for the treatment of brain cancer. As with the earlier anti-angiogenesis research, other researchers expressed skepticism about the safety and effectiveness of these synthetic degradable polymers. But Dr. Langer and his collaborators, including Dr. Laurencin, didn’t give up; in 1996 the FDA approved Gliadel for the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme, the deadly brain malignancy. It was the first new drug approved for the treatment of brain cancer in two decades and the first ever approved for local chemotherapy, according to Dr. Langer.

Applications to Covid

Dr. Langer went on to help in the development of a technology to immunize people against Covid without the need for repeated injections, using 3D printing to fabricate microneedle-equipped transdermal patches that deliver periodic “pulses” of vaccine without the need for repeated booster shots. Ongoing research, he said, will find out if related technologies might be possible to engineer synthetic tissues and organs that would replace diseased ones. “You could combine cells with materials and theoretically make almost any organ,” he said, including skin to treat burns and diabetic ulcers.

Dr. Langer said, “I’m incredibly proud of my students, who received all kinds of awards and great jobs”—and the three speakers returned the compliment to their former mentor.

An “unmatched record of brilliance”

Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic said Dr. Langer has an “unmatched record of brilliance.” With his more than 400,000 citations and 1,600 papers, she said, he is “the fourth-most cited scientist of any kind in the world and the most cited engineer in human history…About 400 of his 1,000 trainees are today faculty at prime universities around the world.”

Said Dr. Anseth, “He was always very encouraging. To this day I’m inspired by his ability to be available. Usually, his response time is in minutes and not hours.”

Dr. Anseth said she had a longstanding interest not only in developing new disease-fighting biomaterials but also in exploiting patient-specific cells or tissues with the goal of moving from off-the-shelf drugs into personalized, sex-specific medicine. “A lot of times in medicine, we scale down products, so we think of a woman as a small man…but that is not the case at all.”

Different Affects for Males and Females

Many ailments affect males and females differently, she said, including mental illness, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. She recounted her and her collaborators’ work on valvular heart disease in particular, an ailment that traditionally has required surgery to replace the diseased heart valve to restore cardiac function. Men’s aortic valves tend to develop calcified deposits, she said, whereas women’s tend to thicken and become more fibrotic. Dr. Anseth wondered: Could valvular disease be treated medically rather than surgically? Should women with valve disease get different treatment than men?

Research showed that when cells taken from diseased valves were cultured in the lab, the genes expressed by the cells changed markedly, thus making it hard to understand the disease process in vivo. But when the cells were placed on newly developed hydrogel materials rather than the hard plastics typically used for cell culture, she said, they behaved as they did inside the body. That gave the researchers a good model for studying valvular disease—which, in turn, might help lead the way to drugs that could transform diseased heart cells into healthy, quiescent ones.

“We designed in our hydrogel systems ways that could recapitulate these [sex-linked] differences where the females would get lots of fibrosis and collagen and the males would get much more calcification,” she said. “And we can use this for screening different types of drugs.”

Organs on a Chip

Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic described recent work with human stem cells, including their use in tissue regeneration research and the creation of so-called organs on a chip, which emulate organ function outside the body. Recently, she’s been involved in research aiming to find develop a system for restoring the health of human donor lungs so that more can be implanted and fewer discarded. Studies with pig and human lungs have shown that it is possible to improve the performance of diseased lungs, she said.

Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic concluded her remarks by recounting a list of 10 life lessons she had learned from Dr. Langer. Among these were: “dream big and take big risks; work on something you’re passionate about and things take care of themselves; pursue science that can benefit people; and work hard and be strong and never give up.”

Dr. Laurencin said Dr. Langer had taught him not to confuse activity for accomplishment, and that “everything you do should be extremely meaningful.” He praised Dr. Langer for inspiring generations of researchers and helping them balance their research with family life. “Bob Langer rubs people the right way,” he said.

To watch this event, visit https://events.nyas.org/DPJA (available until May 9, 2024).

Collaboration is Key to Solving Global Issues

The New York Academy of Sciences works in partnership with New York City high schools to promote interest in STEM subjects among students. Many high school students from New York have taken part in Junior Academy challenges, which enable them to team up with peers from various countries around the world to devise innovative solutions to real-life issues.

Published June 29, 2023

We interviewed Angela, and a group of students from around NYC, who recently participated in the Junior Academy about their experiences.

Newfound Confidence and a Broader Understanding of Science

When we catch up with Angela, she has just embarked on her second Junior Academy challenge. Her team is still at the beginning of the three-month process to find a solution. The high school student is excited about making new connections and learning about a new topic. “I’m doing the public health and climate change challenge,” Angela says. “Some of my current team members are from Egypt and although we still have a language barrier, we’ve been communicating really well.”

This time, she is familiar with the process and what it entails. Angela first signed up for a Junior Academy challenge (designed by the Royal Academy of Engineering in Sweden) on the Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems in 2021, encouraged by her older sister who had taken part in an earlier competition. For their project, Angela’s team focused on tackling overgrown algae in the Yellow Sea.

When she enrolled, Angela wasn’t sure how much she would benefit from working online with other students. The experience, it turns out, “far exceeded my expectations,” she says. “It’s been amazing.”

Global Collaboration

Angela enjoyed introducing herself to her teammates and getting to know them better through their regular interactions over the Launchpad platform. “This program was one of my first experiences meeting people from different U.S. states. I’ve really grown my network. I was able to bond with people from different places, different schools,” she says. “We still talk to each other. It’s cool. I can say I have a friend in Texas.”

Working collaboratively with her teammates and mentor has increased Angela’s self-confidence. “I used to be more on the quiet side, sometimes afraid of sharing because I was afraid I would be wrong,” she explains. “But everyone makes mistakes and we work off them, and it helps build the final product in the project. Being able to answer questions with the mistakes we made in the past has been great.”

Angela also credits her teammates for encouraging her to express her views. “At the start, seeing everyone so open was a shock for me. Everyone was sharing their ideas,” she explains. Initially, she was more reticent. “Over time, my teammates understood and they would bring me into the conversation and ask, ‘Do you have something to add?’”

Empowering Shy Participants

Enabling shy participants and giving them space to be heard in a collective environment is a lesson from the challenge that Angela is now applying to other areas of her life.

Her communication skills have improved. In class, she no longer hesitates to speak up. “Whenever I raise my hand, I have more confidence in what I’m going to say – even if it comes out wrong and you cause some laughter in class. I’m learning, they’re learning.”

The Junior Academy has changed Angela’s understanding of science and she has a broader understanding of the arduous but exhilarating path to scientific progress. “When I was younger, I thought research meant you just google something and it’s over. But now I see everything we do is shaped by a very long process,” she says. “Even if you find a solution, you can continue and share it with the scientific community. This has really shaped me as a person.”

Applying What They Learn

When Angela recently attended a Model U.N. conference on climate change, she was proud to discuss her work and her team’s achievements on the aquatic ecosystems project. With the knowledge she had acquired, she was even able to provide input for the conference resolution.

Angela loves the student-led, hands-on collaboration with her teammates (very different from the science classes at school, she points out) but also highlights the contribution of the team mentors, who guide them through the project.

“I think my favorite part, aside from collaborating with people, was the final product: creating something. One of my teammates was able to create a 3D model on an app on the computer. Some of us didn’t know how to do that,” she says. “This is something I want to continue to work on and develop my skills.”

Prior to joining the Junior Academy, Angela was mainly interested in computer science and political science. “Working with mentors has opened me to possibilities that are out there – so many majors I didn’t know of when I started, in 10th grade,” she says.

The Junior Academy has revealed new areas of interest for Angela. “Being able to do research in different fields, such as biology and biomedical, has really changed what I want to do, and now I’m focusing more on working toward that field.” Whatever subject of study she eventually chooses, Angela hopes to have a transformative impact and to contribute to the solution of pressing issues. “I hope I can do that and apply in the future what I learn now and in college.”

Student Interviewed

  • Angela, High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies
    Challenge: Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems (Fall 2021)
    Project: Prevention of Algae

Interviews from Junior Academy Participants from New York City Schools

What did you learn from engaging with students from around the world?

Joseph: Coming from New York, I was already exposed to a multitude of cultures and perspectives, but my past experiences were nowhere near the scope of this project. I felt like the country that my team’s project focused on, Egypt, was gradually becoming a part of me.  Conversing with Bashar and Noor, my [Egyptian] teammates, has taught me the importance of open mindedness– from coordinating early morning meetings across time zones to listening intently to their findings as they knew their community on a much deeper level.

Courtney: This was my first time working on a Junior Academy challenge. I had so much fun and I really enjoyed being able to bring in my coding skills to contribute to the team. It was also really insightful to be able to work with people of different backgrounds because it gave me new perspectives and ideas I never would have thought of alone.

Demetra: My team’s varied perspectives were needed in order to come up with our solution. I do not think we would have had the same process or results if we all lived in the same place and had the same experiences.

Jocelyn: A significant part of this challenge that made it enjoyable was working in a group. If I had worked alone, I wouldn’t have been able to come up with some of the solutions and research that we came up with. We were able to work harmoniously as a team. Because everyone had different skill sets, we were able to split up the work to best complement each of our background knowledge and experiences. We also helped each other out whenever needed, allowing our work to be done thoroughly and effectively.

Ethan: I was surprised that I could collaborate with students around the world to brainstorm and develop solutions for contemporary problems. Initially, I expected this process to be difficult since I only had a few skills. However, working collaboratively in a group made the process significantly easier and approachable since my group members were extremely talented and diligent.

What have you learned about science and how it works? What skills have you gained?

Jocelyn: Throughout this challenge, I’ve not only improved in my collaborative and communication skills, but I’ve also grown as a researcher and creative thinker. The challenge definitely prompted me to think outside of the box to come up with my own creative solutions to various issues. In order to devise these solutions, I had to look through countless research journals and papers, allowing me to refine my research skills as I carefully selected pieces of information to include in our deliverables. I’m extremely grateful for having the opportunity to participate in The Junior Academy due to the innumerable knowledge and teamwork, collaboration, communication, and research skills that I walked away with.

Yewon: Despite several setbacks and hurdles we’ve had to overcome along the way, I’m glad to have learned valuable lessons through trials and errors.

Qing Yi: While it was a smooth process overall, we had our set of obstacles that we had to overcome, such as our schedule, and what exactly our main goal was by the end of the project as there were so many factors and ideas, and we had to solve them. But of course, we overcame them over time and especially with the help of our mentor, Renee.

How important was it to have a mentor?

Yewon: Dr. Mails has been a wonderful mentor and guide to us, offering her timely advice and aiding us in producing work that we could all be proud of, consistently.

Joseph: The project was one of the first instances I have worked with such a passionate mentor, Ms. Janice Havasy. Her extensive knowledge and profound experience in this field proved essential to the progression of our challenge from time to time.

Ethan: Our mentor considerably assisted our group by thoroughly reviewing our brainstorming and development stages, including our deliverables, to identify flaws and ways to make our solution more explicit and effective. Throughout this program, I learned and incorporated graphic design, and I hope to learn web-development or programming in the future since they are critical skills to create virtual solutions. Ultimately, all our group demonstrated a collective effort to create multiple effective solutions to combat misinformation in the public health sector.

Courtney: Working with a mentor was also really helpful as she was able to point out aspects of our project we may have overlooked. Overall, I think I was able to grow personally and professionally through this project.

Demetra: The Junior Academy has been a unique experience because it is largely student led. I have had few opportunities to participate in entirely student run projects outside of clubs at my school, and it was really enjoyable to be able to work out issues and bounce ideas off of my peers rather than an adult with more experience and education. Our mentor helped to guide us and provided advice, but she also let us make our own decisions and choose which direction our project went in. I think that my team had the right balance of guidance from our mentor and leadership from the student participants.

Jocelyn: Our mentor provided extremely valuable feedback that prompted us to consider additional ideas and solutions that we didn’t previously look into. He also consistently communicated with us to ensure that we stayed on track and remained organized.

What was the broader impact of your participation in the Junior Academy Challenge?

Joseph: The Junior Academy has served as a bridge for me to make meaningful connections – combining medicine and social sciences in my research and bonding with teammates from all walks of life. I am beyond grateful for being able to grow and communicate with my peers and mentor, and would love to do it again!

Demetra: I learned about a topic I knew almost nothing about before I started this program, and I was able to do it with people I would never have met without this program, as well. I will use my experience in the Junior Academy to inform my future experiences in STEM, leadership, and teamwork, and I hope to join the program again in the future!

Qing Yi: Everyone did a great job working together, with the short deadlines, the long calls, and our perseverance we made it so far. It wasn’t easy but it was an amazing effort and involvement of each and every single team member.

Ethan: This program gave me a foundation in STEM, and I hope to partake in other future challenges to develop more skills to develop more effective projects.

Students Interviewed

  • Ethan, Queens High School for the Sciences at York College
    Challenge: Combating Misinformation in the Public Sector (Spring 2022)
    Project: Misinformation Management
  • Jocelyn, Townsend Harris High School
    Challenge: Healthcare on Demand: The Future of Telemedicine (Fall 2020)
    Project: Telehealth Technology Meets Healthcare
  • Yewon, The High School for Math, Science and Engineering
    Challenge: Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems (Fall 2021)
    Project:  De-Eutrophying Lakes
  • Joseph, Stuyvesant High School
    Challenge: The Impact of COVID-19 on Non-Communicable Diseases (Fall 2021)
    Project: Coronavirus Controllers
  • Courtney, Stuyvesant High School
    Challenge: The Impact of COVID-19 on Non-Communicable Diseases (Fall 2021)
    Project: Data Innovate
  • Demetra, Dominican Academy
    Challenge: Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems (Fall 2021)
    Project: Prevention of Algae
  • Quing Yi, Stuyvesant High School
    Challenge: Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems (Fall 2021)
    Project: Algae Geostrainer – The Restorative Buffer