MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer has won the Millennium Technology Prize, the world’s largest award for technology innovation.
Langer was chosen “for his inventions and development of innovative biomaterials for controlled drug release and tissue regeneration that have saved and improved the lives of millions of people,” according to Technology Academy Finland, which gives the award every other year.
The award goes to developers of a technology that “significantly improves the quality of human life, today and in the future.” Winners receive 800,000 euros, or about $1.2 million.
Tarja Halonen, president of Finland, handed Langer the prize and the trophy Wednesday afternoon at an award ceremony in Helsinki.
“It’s such a great honor — particularly given the quality of the people who have won it before as well as the quality of the innovations and people considered this year,” Langer told the MIT News Office.
At MIT, Langer runs the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world. He holds more than 550 issued and pending patents and has written some 900 research papers.
“Bob Langer’s pioneering work places him at the very forefront of science, engineering and medical innovation,” said MIT President Susan Hockfield. “In his remarkably collaborative spirit, extraordinary productivity, depth of curiosity and record of fearless innovation, he embodies the core values of MIT. We are extraordinarily proud of his many contributions and the great good that his work has brought to so many people.”
Langer’s achievements have had a profound impact on the field of cancer research. He entered the field with a PhD in chemical engineering when he teamed with cancer researcher Judah Folkman at Children’s Hospital in Boston in 1974. At that time, the scientific community believed that only small molecules could pass through a plastic delivery system in a controlled manner.
In the 1970s, Langer developed polymer materials that allowed the large molecules of a protein to pass through membranes in a controlled manner to inhibit angiogenesis, the process by which tumors recruit blood vessels. Blocking angiogenesis is critical in fighting cancer because the new blood vessels allow tumor cells to escape into the circulation and lodge in other organs.
“Bob has been a pioneer in applying materials science and engineering to drug delivery and tissue engineering,” said Subra Suresh, dean of MIT’s School of Engineering and Ford Professor of Engineering. “I’m delighted to see his seminal contributions recognized through his selection for this most prestigious award.”
Andrew Viterbi ’56, SM ’57, founder of Qualcomm, was one of four other finalists for this year’s award. He was picked as a finalist for creating an algorithm that became “the key building element in modern wireless and digital communications systems, touching lives of people everywhere,” according to the Technology Academy Finland.
The other finalists, or laureates, were Alec Jeffreys, who developed DNA fingerprinting techniques, and a trio of scientists who developed an optical amplifier that transformed telecommunications: David Payne, Emmanuel Desurvire and Randy Giles.
“It is sufficient to say that each and every one of today’s laureates has excelled in fulfilling the most important of our requirements: benefit to mankind,” said Stig Gustavson, chairman of Technology Academy Finland.
This year marks the third time the prize has been awarded — and the second time an MIT researcher has won it. Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web and senior research scientist at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, won the honor in 2004.