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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 (available until May 9, 2024).

Prestigious Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the UK to bestow £480,000 to nine scientists across the UK

  • The 2024 Awards recognise scientific advances driven by researchers who have:
    • Used new research in RNA structure to improve crop resilience
    • Detected water and other life-signalling molecules from planets beyond the solar system
    • Designed new enzymes never before seen in nature or a lab
    • Encoded photons with information in new ways that enable the possibility for high-capacity quantum communication networks for the first time
  • Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England, are honoured for the first time.
  • Five of the nine honourees come from ethnic minority groups of the UK academic community.

17 January 2024 – London – Today, the Blavatnik Family Foundation and The New York Academy of Sciences have announced the nine recipients of the 2024 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the UK. The grants, totalling £480,000, recognize research that is transforming medicine, technology, and our understanding of the world across three categories: Chemical Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Life Sciences.

This year’s Laureates, selected by an independent jury of expert scientists across the UK, will each receive £100,000 in unrestricted funds:


Professor Anthony P. Green, an organic chemist from The University of Manchester, has been named the Chemical Sciences Laureate for his discoveries in designing and engineering new enzymes, with valuable catalytic functions previously unknown in nature that address societal needs. Recent examples include the development of biocatalysts to produce COVID-19 therapies, to break down plastics, and to use visible light to drive chemical reactions.


Professor Rahul R. Nair, a materials physicist at The University of Manchester, was named Laureate in Physical Sciences & Engineering for developing novel membranes based on two-dimensional (2D) materials that will enable energy-efficient separation and filtration technologies. Using graphene and other 2D materials, his research aims to study the transport of water, organic molecules, and ions at the nanoscale, exploring its potential applications to address societal challenges, including water filtration and other separation technologies.


Dr. Nicholas McGranahan, a computational biologist from University College London (UCL), was named the Life Sciences Laureate. His research explores how to harness evolutionary principles to understand cancers and why tumours are so difficult to treat. His work also aims to understand why and how tumours spread to other parts of the body and to explore the interaction between cancer and the immune system. His work is intended to inform clinical decision-making, identify determinants of treatment resistance, and promote the development of personalized immunotherapies.

Now in its seventh year, the Awards are the largest unrestricted prizes available to UK scientists aged 42 or younger, donating £3.3 million to scientists across UK academia since their inception. Internationally recognised by the scientific community, the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists are instrumental in expanding the engagement and recognition of young scientists and provide the support and encouragement needed to drive scientific innovation for the next generation.

The jury also selected two Finalists from each category, who will each receive £30,000:

  • Fernanda Duarte, PhD, from the University of Oxford (Chemical Sciences)
  • Samuel D. Stranks, DPhil, from the University of Cambridge (Chemical Sciences)
  • Jayne Birkby, PhD, from the University of Oxford (Physical Sciences & Engineering)
  • Mehul Malik, PhD, from Heriot-Watt University (Physical Sciences & Engineering)
  • Tanmay Bharat, PhD, from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (Life Sciences)
  • Yiliang Ding, PhD, from the John Innes Centre (Life Sciences)

This is the first year that Heriot-Watt University and the John Innes Centre were recognised by the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the UK. The 2024 Awards received 84 nominations from 40 academic and research institutions.

“Providing recognition and funding early in a scientist’s career can make the difference between discoveries that remain in the lab and those that make transformative scientific breakthroughs,” said Sir Leonard Blavatnik, Founder and Chairman of Access Industries and Head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation.“We are proud that the Awards have promoted both UK science and the careers of many brilliant young scientists and we look forward to their additional discoveries in the years ahead.”

Professor Nicholas B. Dirks, President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences and Chair of the Awards’ Scientific Advisory Council, noted, “From studying cancer to identifying water in far-off planets, to laying the groundwork for futuristic quantum communications systems, to making enzymes never seen before in a lab or in nature, this year’s Laureates and Finalists are pushing the boundaries of science and working to make the world a better place. Thank you to this year’s jury for sharing their time and expertise in selecting these daring and bold scientists as the winning Laureates and Finalists of the 2024 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the UK.”

The Blavatnik Awards in the UK sit alongside their global counterparts, the Blavatnik National Awards and the Blavatnik Regional Awards in the United States, and the Blavatnik Awards in Israel, all of which honour and support exceptional early-career scientists. By the close of 2024, the Blavatnik Awards will have awarded prizes totalling US$17.2 million. About 60% of all recipients are immigrants to the country in which they were recognised; honourees hail from 54 countries across six continents, reflecting the Blavatnik Family Foundation’s recognition that groundbreaking science is a global enterprise.

Blavatnik Awards scholars are driving economic growth by embarking on new scientific trajectories to pursue high-risk, high-reward scientific research. To date, Blavatnik Awards honourees have founded 72 companies. After recognition by the Blavatnik Awards, 30% of past honourees obtained a patent or filed a patent application, 75% have started a new research direction, and 11% have started a new collaboration with another Blavatnik Awards honouree.

The 2024 Blavatnik Awards in the UK Laureates and Finalists will be honoured at a black-tie gala dinner and award ceremony at Banqueting House in Whitehall, London, on 27 February 2024; Professor Irene Tracey, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, will serve as ceremony presenter. The following day, on 28 February 2024 from 11:00 to 17:00 GMT, the honourees will present their research with a series of short, interactive lectures at a free public symposium at the RSA House located at 8 John Adam St., London. To attend the symposium, click HERE to register.

Notes to Editors

To follow the progress of the Blavatnik Awards, please visit the Awards’ website ( or follow us on Facebook and X (@BlavatnikAwards).

For media requests, please contact: 

For further details about the 2024 Blavatnik Awards in the UK Laureates and Finalists, the Blavatnik Family Foundation, and the New York Academy of Sciences, please see below.

About the Laureates

Chemical Sciences

Anthony P. Green, PhD, The University of Manchester – Designing and engineering new enzymes with functions beyond those found in nature to make the materials that society needs

As Professor of Organic and Biological Chemistry at The University of Manchester, Professor Anthony P. Green studies and designs enzymes – nature’s catalysts – that speed up almost all of the biochemical processes needed for life. He was recognised for the targeted engineering of enzymes to catalyse new chemical reactions not possible using conventional techniques. Building from fundamentals of synthetic chemistry, Professor Green designs and evolves bespoke enzymes to perform valuable chemical reactions, unlocking synthetic pathways never seen before in chemistry labs or in nature. His research allows the chemical industry to develop more efficient and environmentally benign ways to solve global challenges, from making new pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, or biofuels to breaking down environmental pollutants such as plastics.

Physical Sciences & Engineering

Rahul R. Nair, PhD, The University of Manchester – Studying two-dimensional materials to explore their potential applications in water filtration and other separation technologies

As Professor of Materials Physics and Carlsberg/Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair at The University of Manchester, Professor Rahul R. Nair conducts research in two-dimensional (2D) material-based membranes, using the technology to solve real-world global challenges. Professor Nair’s work on graphene oxide and other 2D material membranes highlights their potential in various real-world applications: water filtration and seawater desalination, organic solvent nanofiltration, and intelligent membranes for filtration and biomedical uses. Additionally, his research has provided valuable insights into the movement of water and other molecules in nanocapillaries, as those movements differ from their behaviour on the macro scale.

Life Sciences

Nicholas McGranahan, PhD, University College London (UCL) – Harnessing evolutionary principles to understand cancers, tumour development, and metastasis, laying the foundation for developing new treatment approaches

Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death worldwide; for each patient, cancer manifests differently, but it is always an uncertain diagnosis. Computational biologist and Principal Research Fellow at University College London (UCL), Dr. Nicholas McGranahan, was recognised for developing computational analyses to understand how tumours have developed and how they might be treated. Dr. McGranahan’s work has laid a foundation for exploring tumour development as an evolutionary process. He has developed tools to permit researchers to understand the genetic faults that have accumulated during a tumour’s development and to evaluate how these can be harnessed to predict the tumour’s future trajectory. His tools also allow researchers to determine how we might design more effective cancer treatments, which are specific to each individual tumour.

About the Finalists

Chemical Sciences

Fernanda Duarte, PhD, University of Oxford – Developing cutting-edge computational tools to simulate chemical reactions and design new molecules for future therapeutics

Professor Fernanda Duarte, Associate Professor of Computational Organic Chemistry at the University of Oxford, is developing groundbreaking computational tools to simulate chemical reactions, optimise chemical synthesis, and guide the design of new molecules. Professor Duarte integrates molecular modelling with advances in computer science to address pressing challenges in computational chemistry. A key application of Professor Duarte’s work is the identification of new therapeutic agents to address global health challenges. The traditional drug discovery process is time consuming and costly, but through her new techniques, Professor Duarte can screen and analyse large chemical libraries quickly, identifying potential drug candidates before the rigors of experimental testing.

Samuel D. Stranks, DPhil, University of Cambridge  – Improving the efficiency of next-generation solar cells through studying the behaviour and stability of their key component, perovskite materials

Traditional silicon-based solar cell technology has reached an efficiency plateau. Next-generation solar cells based on perovskite materials hold extraordinary potential to improve solar panel efficiency. Despite their high efficiency, perovskite solar cells have several technical challenges to address before they can be widely deployed commercially. These include pushing performances to their potential efficiency limits and stopping performance degradation over long-term operation. Professor Samuel D. Stranks, Professor of Optoelectronics at the University of Cambridge, has developed novel techniques to study the optical and electronic properties of novel perovskite semiconductors to inform the design of low-cost, high-performance and stable technologies to drive society’s next-generation energy transition.

Physical Sciences & Engineering

Jayne Birkby, PhD, University of Oxford – Detecting water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet with robust evidence, for the first time

For centuries, the question of life beyond Earth has captivated human imagination. Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of astrophysicists like Professor Jayne Birkby, Associate Professor of Exoplanetary Science and Tutorial Fellow in Physics at Brasenose College at the University of Oxford, this inquiry is no longer a matter of speculation. Professor Birkby was recognised for detecting water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet – a planet that is beyond the solar system – with robust evidence, for the first time, and continuously advancing cutting-edge spectroscopy and imaging techniques for exoplanet research. Professor Birkby’s work accelerates the quest to identify life-signalling molecules like oxygen, methane, water, and carbon dioxide on nearby exoplanets.

Mehul Malik, PhD, Heriot-Watt University – Encoding information onto photons in new ways that create a pathway towards a future quantum internet

While still in its infancy, quantum communication technology holds the promise of unprecedented levels of information security, positioning itself as the indispensable backbone for the future functioning of human society. Quantum physicist and Professor of Physics, Professor Mehul Malik, is advancing quantum communications at Heriot-Watt University through revolutionary techniques that harness high-dimensional entanglement, a complex quantum physics phenomenon. Professor Malik’s innovations enable the normally fragile entanglement to survive long distances and harsh conditions, laying the foundation for noise-robust and high-capacity quantum networks that securely transmit large amounts of information encoded on individual photons.

Life Sciences

Yiliang Ding, PhD, John Innes Centre – Unveiling the functional roles of RNA structure in living cells as the key to RNA structure-based therapeutics and crop improvement

RNA biologist Dr. Yiliang Ding serves as Group Leader at the John Innes Centre, where she is developing innovative methods for profiling RNA structures in living cells. RNA has long been known as a crucial part of the central dogma of cellular biology, where DNA is transcribed into RNA and then translated into protein. However, less is known about the complex structures into which RNA can be formed and the importance of these structures in regulating diverse biological processes. Dr. Ding’s research is delivering new insights into the functional roles of RNA structures in gene regulation. This pioneering research provides a springboard for the global use of RNA structure-guided molecular designs in therapeutics and crop improvement.

Tanmay Bharat, PhD, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology – Tackling human health by understanding the mechanisms of biofilm and microbiome formation through new cutting-edge electron cryotomography (cryo-ET) techniques

Microorganisms such as bacteria and archaea are commonly found in complex multicellular communities; however, relatively little is understood about how these multicellular communities form. Dr. Tanmay Bharat, structural microbiologist and Programme Leader in the Structural Studies Division at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, has developed and applied cutting-edge cryo-ET techniques to create atomic-level pictures of cell surface molecules on microorganisms, revealing how these molecules mediate the formation of multicellular communities. Dr. Bharat’s work has important biomedical implications, since most pathogenic bacteria infect humans by forming multicellular, antibiotic-resistant, biofilm communities. This work is also vital for the fundamental understanding of the dynamics of cell-to-cell interactions that led to the historical evolution of multicellular life on earth.

About the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists

The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, established by the Blavatnik Family Foundation in 2007 and independently administered by The New York Academy of Sciences, began by identifying outstanding scientific talent in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. In 2014, the Blavatnik National Awards were created to recognise faculty-rank scientists throughout the United States. In 2017, the Awards were further expanded to honour faculty-rank scientists in the UK and Israel. For updates about the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, please visit or follow us on X and Facebook @BlavatnikAwards.

About the Blavatnik Family Foundation

The Blavatnik Family Foundation provides many of the world’s best researchers, scientists, and future leaders with the support and funding needed to solve humankind’s greatest challenges. Led by Sir Leonard Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries, the Foundation advances and promotes innovation, discovery, and creativity to benefit the whole of society. Over the past decade, the Foundation has contributed more than US$1 billion to more than 250 organisations. See more at


David Charbonneau

2016 Blavatnik National Laureate and Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University

There are too few opportunities for scientists to actually come together and share the really big ideas. One of the really great things that we get out of the annual Blavatnik Symposium is that you have this community of young scientists that come together in many different fields.

Ruslan Medzhitov, PhD

Yale School of Medicine (2007 Faculty Regional Award Winner)

The Blavatnik Awards are very special because they are given at a stage of a scientific career when recognition is most meaningful and has a long-lasting impact. This was certainly the case for me. The award given at the early stage of a scientific career not only recognizes past accomplishments, but also the future promise. This provides a powerful motivation to deliver on that promise.

Shruti Naik, PhD

New York University’s Langone Medical Center (2019 Early-Career Scientist Award Winner)

Receiving the Innovators in Science Award is really such an honor. It’s a really great way to start out my research career and also be recognized for some of the findings I’ve had thus far. In many ways it validates my approach as a scientist.

Michele De Luca, MD

University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (2019 Senior Scientist Award Winner)

Receiving this award for me is very important. Mainly because it comes from the scientific community. That your colleagues recognize your work is of particular value. And it’s going to push us hard to continue.

Jeong Ho Lee, MD, PhD

Associate Professor, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) (2020 Early-Career Scientist Award Winner)

It is a great honor to be recognized by a jury of such globally respected scientists whom I greatly admire. More importantly, this award validates research into brain somatic mutations as an important area of exploration to help patients suffering from devastating and untreatable neurological disorders.

Adrian R. Krainer, PhD

St. Giles Foundation Professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (2020 Senior Scientist Award Winner)

I’m extremely honored to receive this recognition for research that my lab and our collaborators carried out to develop the first approved medicine for SMA.  As basic researchers, we are driven by curiosity and get to experience the thrill of discovery; but when the fruits of our research can actually improve patients’ lives, everything else pales in comparison.

Elaine Y. Hsiao, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at UCLA (2022 Early-Career Scientist Award Winner)

Winning the Innovators in Science Award is a great privilege for me as an early-career scientist. Not only does it signal a welcome to new researchers to help advance the field, it also recognizes the discoveries made possible by my talented and inspiring colleagues in the lab who share my dedication to uncovering interactions between the gut, its native microbes, and the brain. This award will continue to motivate me to go where science leads.

Jeffrey Gordon, MD

NYAS Logo Swirl

Distinguished University Professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (2022 Senior Scientist Award Winner)

This award is a wonderful recognition of the excitement and promise that the field of microbiome research offers, and of the collective efforts of the inspiring group of talented students, staff, and collaborators who I’ve been privileged to work with as we strive to better understand how the gut impacts our health.