Kirsty Young's castaway is the scientist Dr Robert Langer. Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is the most cited engineer in history, and was awarded the prestigious US medals of both Science and of Technology and Innovation. A pioneer of many new technologies including controlled release drug delivery systems and nanotechnology, Langer is also regarded as the founder of tissue engineering in regenerative medicine where synthetic structures are used to provide the scaffolding on which new skin, muscle, bone and potentially entire organs can be grown. Born in Albany, New York, in 1948, Langer's interest in science was kindled by the Gilbert chemistry, microscope and building sets he was given as birthday presents by his parents. He studied chemical engineering at Cornell University before getting his Doctor of Science from MIT in 1974. His enthusiasm wasn't fired up by the many job offers from oil companies he received, preferring to apply to work in the medical sector. After many unsuccessful applications, he was hired by Dr Judah Folkman, a surgeon at Harvard, who tasked Langer with isolating a compound to restrict blood vessel growth in order to stop a tumour from growing. His work at the interface of medicine and engineering led to him being awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering in 2015. He attributes his success to "a combination of stubbornness, risk taking, perhaps being reasonably smart and wanting to do good". Producer: Christine Pawlowsky.
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Hello, I'm kirsty young. Thank you for downloading this podcast of desert island discs from BBC radio four for rights reasons. The music choices are shorter than in the radio broadcast for more information about the program. Please visit bbc dot, co, dot, uk slash radio for the my castaway this week. Is the scientists doktor robert langer pioneer teacher entrepreneur? enter he's in the hot. If business, asking the big questions on how to tackle and treat disease and injury and entirely credible estimates, as two billion people's lives have been affected by the workers,
Done cancer, diabetes, heart disease, burns and spinal injuries are just a few of the areas to benefit significantly from his remarkable dedication to discovery, the most cited engineer in history, the lap he runs at mit isn't just a petri dish for ideas and innovations. It's also grown a generation of world class biochemists devoting their time and energy to making us health. yeah and happier as a child in school. He had problems paying attention in class, but down in the basement of the family home. His dad, who owned a liquor store, would help him rig up experiments with his little chemistry set and so began a fascination with.
Science. He says when you were a student, your judged by how well you answer questions, but in life. Your judged by how good your questions are, and sir Robert Lang welcome this idea of always wondering what, if we just in your brain, surely must constantly be mulling over the possibilities of what life and what science holes at was the question currently at the forefront. of this great brain like us are quite a few questions were asking in our laboratory. I mean what we're doing its work at the interface of engineering and materials and meadows. And so some of them are. Can we create new therapies using nanotechnology? You could take a hair out and if you looked at the thickness of a hair, a narrow particle might be. You know one one thousandth of thickness, so the very, very tiny materials part of we're doing is trying to use nanotechnology to deliver, say a cancer drug or
there may someday. I think in the next twenty years be new medicines that will enable us to change the genetic make up of the cell to say, if somebody has a enzyme deficiency disease that we might be able to help them on that and that you have, I think it would be for sea, received almost every available plaudits, an award going for your work, your one of very few to have received the: u s: national metal of technology and innovation, and also the u s metal of science than last year here in the uk, had awarded the queen Elizabeth prize for engineering only the second time it's been awarded for what was described in the citation as your revolutionary leadership at the interface of chemistry and medicine, such a good face. What what is it that excites you about? That's interface. What excites me, as is, I think, both at this important scientific challenge,
but that solving those scientific challenges can do a lot of good, I mean just to give an example or to one of the things that were working on a lab is an area. We call tissue engineering, regenerative medicine so some day you know we might be able to combine materials and cells to create virtually any the tissue organ and already that can lead to a new skin for burn victims. But we have also done work in terms of new treatments for diabetes, for hearing loss for many other problems. They must surely be a vast amount of not just knowledge but also discipline involved in your work. I much of your time I'm guessing night, not in the lab. Do you spend
the thing about possibilities. You know, do sit on a park bench and let your mind wander or you're, not sure. It's a really interesting question. You know I don't dream deliberately, you know, but every so often not yet you're listening to music or you're watching a tv show- and you know, thoughts just come to you and you have said that the key to solving big problems is ensuring that you and your team have got, in your words the freedom to explore or how do you creates that culture? You need a number of things I made first, you have to have a reasonable amount of funding, but I think most of its attitude that people I feel that there are no limits to what they can do and out there doing something really important we're here to tell you bob but also to hear your music tell me about the first one this morning. What is it and why have you chosen it? Well, when I was a little boy, you know probably about five six years old, walt disney. Had this movie about davy crockett, and I really left that I like the song yet
I remember, singing it all the time- and I still like it today, born on a mountain top in tennessee greenest state in the land of the free raised in the woods so's. A new ever treat killed him a bar when he was only three day: the davy crockett king of the wild frontier and eighteen thirteen, the creeks approach ad and redskin arrows to the country's whoa. Now engine fighting is something he knows, so he shouldered his rifle and off. He goes David, a davy crockett, the ballad of davy crockett sung there by fess parker, composed by george brands and tom blackburn, and they were calling him the buckskin buccaneer. Is there something of the buccaneering spirit in your signs? Do you enjoy bob langer going places that other people haven't and doing it in a way that other people don't, You know, I don't know that I enjoy doing that, but I think I do do it when I
graduate student. I was a chemical engineer. when I got done almost all of my colleagues when oil companies and so I applied to those companies, actually got a twenty job offers for from exxon along? They were saying all you know you could just increase the yield of. Maybe this one petrochemical by you know very small amount. That would be Wonderful be worth billions, but I I wasn't excited about it, and so I shudder to think about other things that that I might do
and so here you are now running what must be the biggest bio engineering lab in academia. I imagined among the many successes in your work, is this thing that you mentioned a moment ago: tissue regeneration, particularly. I want to ask you about this idea of growing new skin for burns survivors can. Can you explain a little bit about how it's done? I've seen the pictures and it looks extraordinary. The central idea in that style been modified. Different ways is that you could take a plastic scaffold and you could take different cell types or in the case of artificial skin, what's called a fibroblast cell and when you put it on a plastic, it grows, and you can actually yeah put that on a burn victim and or or a person who has say diabetic skin ulcers and make a new skin. I mentioned in introducing you to day this almost bamboozling figure of two billion individual people who have
in some way been touched by the innovations and inventions that you have been responsible for. Is it possible for you to look at a particular area, or indeed a very particular drug or therapy, and think so far? That's my protest movement. My team did that, while I think, If I were to pick one scientific area, I would think of discovery. We made that did go against conventional wisdom. We discovered how you could use materials to. liver molecules overlong times where those molecules would have really any charge or any size, and I think that opened the door to a lot of new therapies.
Me a little example sure. So there are now microbes fears that people and jack say somebody has prostate cancer events, prostate cancer, the drugs that their big molecules like certain types of hormones- and you can't swallow them- you can't take them almost any route and if you inject them normally there destroyed right away but die. You can put them a little micro spheres and though a protect the drug from harm and I'll deliver. Initially, over a month now, they actually have some that last for six months and there's many different medications like that and those microspheres that you developed they just enable, rather than before it were that drug would be automatically attacked by somebody's system. They are released slowly and predictably, and in a way that benefits the body month and harming it. That's correct, I mean what you said is exactly right: the drug is also protected and and the drug is also released at a steady rate so that you don't get no side effects. You've been responsible
Well, I read different figures. I read two dozen startups, but I think it's more than that. No, what one of them particularly caught my eye. I was reading that there was a link between research that you did into prostate and a varian cancer that eventually led to a company that makes hair products that are advertised jennifer aniston. Have I got the link right? Can that possibly be true, that's a little bit of a long story, but the science we do in our lab. One of the big areas that are Dan Anderson was one of my post taxis now, professor at mit, and I did not create new ways to make materials. We made literally thousands and thousands of materials with the idea that some might be useful as a gene therapy for prostate or ovarian cancer, and so we had this lie But since we have those materials you could use them for anything and another one of my former students and some of his colleagues want to start a company of healthcare, and so one of the questions they asked us. Could we help prevent frizzed? Could we help up, give hair more body and again you can reach into that library and fine materials? I can do just
about anything? So we did, I mean anything we can do. That makes people healthier or happier as good and my feeling, as even the hair products, actually make a lot of people happy, and I think that's a good thing to similar music above langer. Tell me about the second one: what are we going to hear? when I was such a starting high school. I remember there was a debate about whether the best I was gonna be moldova hawaii and I remember, listen to run and I thought it was a great song. The
That was they'll, send him and run away and memories for you, bob ollinger of those days in school, where you took part in the school vote. Let's look a little bit earlier, I'm guessing at will been your teenage years. You were given these little, I said chemistry says, but actually little building sense or all sorts of covered. All the I installed your rector yet so there are rare erector sets where the building sets microscope sets. Chemistry sets that they don't exist anymore, with whoever people by age they're, certainly the who, as they probably had them and people would know they have. No that way rachel look of. Usually it would be a little boy on the front. You know in colored ink and him doing his experiments, and you were one of those little boys doing the experiments and tell me what you made with them. Well with the erector sadder, I remember they had like a rocket launcher that you could shoot. You know I mean it wasn't like a real rocket with a rocket you could shoot in the house. I think my mother be ready to kill me. You know they had this thing called a parachute jump and then it was like this.
Robot. That was like the ultimate thing you could make, but you know you could make almost anything with the microscope set. You know, I think the big experiment I remember was watching a shrimp eggs, hatch and with the chemistry set I mean to me: I've always like magic. I mean the things that I remember were like mixing. You know two different solutions together: different colors and they'd react and you'd see a third color or you could make a rubber. You know by adding two things together to perform magic. I did. I haven't done it in awhile, but when my kids were younger and I was younger- I I performed some shows- I don't think I'm the greatest magician, but I was I was halfway decent. You could go to magic shops or do card tricks and you could fool a lot of people. Scientists, of course, have to be surely comfortable with failure when you were a little boy, you're thinking it says, in the instructions. If I'm mix that- and I mix that, then this will happen and it didn't, can you can you remember any of your sort of disappointments and failures yeah? I remember my friends and I had this idea that we were going to make gunpowder, and
We failed on that just about every time, probably fortunately, but yes, I I've had a lot of failures and everything and and paying attention in class. I saw you say in an interview once I wasn't very good at that, and I think I might have had eighty hd. Do you not think you were maybe just bored? I probably was bored. and actually sometimes even now and I go to a lectures and I have trouble concentrating and a day dream, and I, as I think that just too I am if I have a one on one conversation in pretty good, but if I'm sitting like an electrode on somebody speaking, even if their very very good it's hard for me to concentrate passed. The first few minutes- and I just daydream about different things and that's what I did when I was little in your case. I think it might be reasonably categorized- is just being smarter than everybody else at tell me about your pattern ex terry, that your therapy-
if music. What are we going to hear now? Why have you chosen this? Well, the next one? Actually for the first, it's a theme song from a movie that I that I enjoy and always felt was very underrated, legends of the fall, but I also thought it was just a great story about conflict in and resolution the. the. That was legends of the all played by the london symphony orchestra, composed and conducted by james warner, and so Bob langer tell me a little bit about your father. He got a masters degree at harvard,
but yes, after the war there he is ending up running his own. He was a small businessman. He ran a a liquor store. He did my dad do grew up in the depression and I think he got to see people who are very successful, you know go bankrupt and get very poor? Then he went into world war two and was a navigator for over italy, and when he had done. Actually, he started with one of his friends around a pool hall and try new york- and I remember as a little boy crawling under the table so that poor hahaha, but most of what he did after the pool hall was runner. Yet he owned a small liquor store in albany and he worked very hard. But do you think opportunities weren't opened to him? I think that he was really concerned about providing a secure living for his family. You know my sister sister and I and and and my mom, that there was enough money that we would have a house over our heads and
that, though we would have a decent life and within this decent life than what was his expectation of how his son and his daughter would do in school. My parents were great that way. They just want me to be happy, so I think there were pleased that I did ok originally well in school, but it wasn't something. A day emphasised and sue. Your mother is still alive, she's. Ninety three yeah- she just our ninety three a couple weeks ago and as a kid water use, this memories of her as a young man. Oh my mom was then and Now a very nice person I mean she would just take care of
my sister and I I guess my sister- would fight so much. She would yellow police try to stop us providing but she's, just like a a very loving person and you've also said that she tended to be a warrior at us for sure. I'm in a lot of memories of that, but like one of the things that my parents decided when I think I was twelve and my sister was ten, we should go to overnight camp and the overnight camp. We went to was probably about an hour and a half away, and so we drive up- and I would
say every minute, maybe less she would come up with another worry. What do you do if it rains several mama where rubbers while? But what? If you can't find your lovers and and my sister and I we were so frustrating a week- start counting the worried like eighty five, eighty six, but it wouldn't matter machine would keep coming up with more for them and she still worries alot today. That's just who she is. She worried about. Everybody hurt herself me my kids, that does it back for, but she's very at worrying. Everything that I have read a bite, heathen and people see about you is that you are one of those people who sees solutions when nobody else does
wondering when that began. You know as it were you a creative kids. Were you somebody early on who was figuring out the world you, I really don't think I was very special in any way. As a kid I I mean when I look back at my childhood. I think it was pretty normal. I played sport with my friends. I was a good student. I don't think I was a great student, but in terms of figuring out the world, I I don't think I did anything special than either you weren't a great. Didn't you say what results did you come out of high school with that was in the top ten percent of my class? I wasn't. I was enough number one another by classify anyway, top ten percent, pretty good bob and tell me what we could do you next, then we are on your fourth year, while the next song, I I'm one of the things that I have loved, was being a teacher working with young people and getting them excited about math and science has always been something I love.
One movie that I always love was to sir with love so like I love that son what books the That was to sir with love It was lulu that was singing it. It's on your list, bob langer up for for many good reasons that you explained to us. But during it we were having a fascinating conversation and I surely chair with his nose, you said is lulu still singing. I said yes, she is, and you said you know the artificial tissue research that we ve been doing in the work that we ve been doing. We do
on singers, two and Julie Andrews famously has had problems with her vocal chords, which she spoken about also adele. More recently, I explain a little bit of this artificial tissue work when it comes to singers. At that level, one of my colleagues and friends as a man named Steve's eye tells in his or a voice surgeon and what happens sometimes so to some seniors as they get a lot of scar tissue on their vocal chords. So one of the things that Steve had asked me to do is to see if we could someday make a gel that might be able to help those singer, so we hope that it'll be ready to try and patience some point in the near future, so Adele. If you're listening, it's all going to be fine, and let me ask you this story. Okay, let let me ask you then, but when you began to teach it was while you yourself were still studying and you got a taste for teaching, because you were involved in of a particular community project. They explain a little bit of that to me. The first time I did get a taste of teaching was at cornell. I was a teaching assistant as an undergrad,
I love that, but then I went to mit as a graduate school and that was in cambridge and boston cambridge Massachusetts. is harvard and mit, but in the nineteen seventies it had the highest high school dropout rate of any city, it's size in the united states, so we got involved in and starting the school for, students that had dropped out of the conventional high schools in particular. What I was doing was trying to create better math and science programs and one of the ways the school looked at it and the students looked at is that you didn't have to take math or science. So that was a good challenge and my goal is to really make it exciting and interesting to try to come up with ways that people could see chemical phenomena but in things that they could relate to, like as an example, there's something called freezing point. Lowering one way that we actually can do, that is by making ice cream and the way you make ice cream is
who actually can take a liquid? But if you can put salt into what? Where you're making it you can actually lower nuts actually part of how you make ice cream, so you can use a lot of every day principles. Let's go see more music, then what Wenger went on your fifth tell me about this. Why have you chosen it? Well, I've always like sports and I've also always like root root for the underdog. I often I guess like of myself that way, sometimes but my favorite sports movies, a movie called hoosiers and I always loved the music from it. The the
that- was best jobs composed and performed by jerry goldsmith from the film who's, your music, bob ollinger. I've always use it for the underdog, and I I said I think I think, of myself as a bit of an underdog. Why do you think of yourself in that way? I m fascinated why I struggled you know a lot at different points in my life and while I was doing my post doktor work, I was doing it as an assured you department at boston, children's hospital, harvard medical school with due to open, and I made some discovery, region and adventures of the time, but the research I done kind of way
against what I'll call conventional wisdom had challenged a lot of ways of thinking that people had so what happened was a lot of people were very much against the ideas that I had, and so my first nine grants you know which is important when you're an academic were rejected and then also I didn't get any job in a chemical engineering department. I went to what was called the nutrition department and there it. When I was talking about some of my ideas on drug delivery systems, one of the senior family just sat there any blue smoke in my face, and he said you better start looking for another job, because this was said at the beginning
If the biochemical and biomedical engineering- and you worked- you you mentioned there- Judah folkman, harvard you worked on this thing to do with It- was to do with tumors, and if you could restrict the blood supply to tumors, then you could stop that human growing and therefore people wouldn't have to deal with such severe cancers. And- and you was It- you were pretty much- maybe not marked quiet, but people looked at the work you've been doing and they look down your nose at it and there were you as somebody who had turned on you came up with a very good degree. You had turned down twenty jobs at big oil companies, and I'm wondering I'm thinking about your father, who only thought you know he ran a liquor store when he had a degree from harvard. He only thought about provision doing the right thing for his son. He you you seem to be.
From a different cloth, you didn't seem to have that where you seem to have the fight in your belly is to keep going. I think he was afraid that he couldn't provide necessarily a livelihood for us, but he did you know. So I had that security, so I could take chances. I wasn't thinking about money, you know it was like what did I love doing? You know, and that was what my dad would always say to me said- pick a job. You know not because of they should not because of anything else other than that you really loved. And actually I like that message that some message I tell my students till you ve, been married to and I have for a long time. How did you meet the women who would become your wife while she was a graduate student at mit issue some were roommate of one of the people who worked in our lab a neuroscientist. He occasionally yes and I guess one We were running on the track and we started talking to each other and a kind of things, but from their she's very attractive
How did the shy guy managed to work up the nerve to talk to the gorgeous sterling ethics? You cause she. She she's a lot more outgoing, and I am so she talked me. Let's have the music, then bob langer. What are we going to hear? so this is a song that, with they played our wedding, was from dirty dancing, which is another move. that I like than she like them, it's the best time of my life. The The
at the time of my life sung by bill medley and Jennifer warnes from the movie dirty dancing, your father, pope langer was only sixty one when he died. Am I right in thinking that you decided to sort of change your lifestyle in terms of exercise and other things when your father died? You were around about twenty eight when that happened. I did I. I changed a number of things because of that I used to love steak and hamburgers. Those were my two favorite foods and I gave up red meat properly forty years ago and then I would do a lot of exercise every day how much two to three hours, maybe two to four hours over, but I actually work a lot of what I'm exercising you know. I I we have like a recall and bike, and that means you can sit down on it and you know, read and write. How do you fit in the parenting? You've had three kids amid this extraordinarily busy professional life yeah, so my wife was very clear, very outspoken and she said well. I know you're going to want to work and stuff like that, but I want you home by seven o'clock every night, so you can spend time with the kids
I'm really glad she did, but also every year I take her each of my children on a special trip with me. I did that ever since they were little and all of them got to go to see queen Elizabeth when I won the queen Elizabeth prize last year and you spent a lot of time as a family relatively you were there with the royal family, the clue swell family, for a couple of hours. The other day were great, I'm in over six members of the royal family there until the science, while some of them dead, well you know a princess. I have seemed to know quite a bit of science. Let us talk a little bit more science than an one of your major scientific breakthrough is creating of delivering medicine specific and then using remote control to activate this medicine and explain a little bit of that. Yes show. You know about those close to twenty years, gosh watching a tv show on how they made ships in the computer industry, and I thought to myself. You know just sort of flesh, I my boy, what if we could put drugs and ships
in an activate those chips. You know remotely to deliver things whenever and wherever we wanted. Just to give you one example of an- and this is a variation of that chip that we're doing is one of the things that people sometimes talk about today in medicine is what's called personalized medicine. Could you come up with the right drugs for the right patient, let's They have cancer, they might actually take some. The cancer cells out of the body grow them minna would like a petri dish or something like that and see what chemicals, what chemotherapy agents work best and then they might give that to the patient. But one of the issues, without even also a good idea. If you dont have the immune system and the petri dish you dont have blood vessels in the petri dish to were actually making little chap now in the form of a very, very tiny cylinder, so you can take a biopsy nato put one of those cylinders and with maybe three do a hundred different chemotherapy jugs. Then you come back a day later and you take with a slightly larger.
Do you remove the needle you just put in and a little bit of the surrounding tissue, and you analyse surrounding tissue and tells you which of those thirty or a hundred drugs, actually works. Best on them should marry her everything, immune system, the matrix and so forth, and so the idea- and we just starting clinical trials now is. Could you really come up with personalized medicine by using that, because we actually have a device like that or we could test in a patient knows when you create a new technology like that kind of chip it opens the door to all kinds of things is like a sort of almost a new tool that I hope will end
well. You know science and medicine to go further because of it with our minds, suitably blown bulb langer. We will listen to your next piece of music. Tell me about this. We're on your seventh. While I have to admit I probably cheated a little bit. I asked my wife and my children, my son said you know, we'll probably have if you're thinking about us, you should play a wannabe from the spice girls, so this is about what they were little, because they wanted a lot of things
for you, three kids bubbling over was the spice girls and one of you, you ve, heard an unparalleled amount of success in your field. When you talk to students around the world who want to pass on to them. about pursuing a life in science, whether science or anything, the message Is that I try to impart is that you know you want to first do something you loved and I think it's worth spending time to find out what that is, and then I also think it's wonderful to have dreams and and and to dream big, but I think that at the same time you have to recognize
that you're going to run into just like I did just like properly. Everybody does obstacles, obstacles that may seem make those dreams seem like they're so far away and may never happen, and so the last message that I give is don't ever give up people who work with you say that and you don't have a linear way of thinking. You know you take great leaps of thoughts. You can't teach that, can you do? Do you think somebody just either? Has that or they don't for me. I don't know that you can teach it, but I think you can help it the way. I often look at it as as as this I've never thought I was anything special in most ways, but I had a degree in chemical engineering. So I knew chemical engineering pretty well and then what I did as I ended up doing for my postdoc, something totally different. That really stretch me, it was being really the only engineer in a surgery department in a hospital, and it exposed made a very, very different thing. So I was able to
combined engineering, on the one hand, with medicine on the other. So if you learn to very disparate things, whatever those two things are, you might think of unusual ways to combine them and that may aid in your creativity, Bob langer. Just as well. You are an inventor and a problem solver because, as you know, we cast you away ass. He does ireland all on your own. It won't proved too much of a problem for you. Will it you'll immediately figuring the whole thing, I'm sure what do you think I don't I don't think so. I think my wife would say that I would probably have a hard time, I'm very good chemical engineer, but I'd probably not good at figuring out practical things. Tell me about your eighth disc, then, while here I I guess, I think about again my wife, laura and yeah. I just feel so lucky that she's been in my life and really man so many ways of my family and and my career. So my less on I've thought about tat the wind beneath my wings by bet miller
You The. It was bette midler, singing the wind beneath my wings, and you dedicated that bob to your wife laura it's time now for me to give you the books, we give everybody the complete works of shakespeare and a copy of the bible, and they get to take another book along with those. What's your book could be so I guess I was trying to think between the iliad and the odyssey. So I guess I'll up epic, the iliad good lot of reading in that and a luck
ready to buy want to have a picture of my family or a photo album of my family. Oh yeah, we can give you a whole album of families now, okay, that would be great, and if the waves were to threaten to wash away these discs, which one single disc, but would you run to the sand safe? I probably would do the wind beneath my wings. Okay, it's yours, doctor bob langer. Thank you very much for letting us hear your desert island discs. Well, thank you has been wonderful. the The the
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Transcript generated on 2022-06-19.