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M.I.T. professor to be honored by President Obama

Posted by Your Town  January 4, 2013 05:26 PM

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Professors Robert Langer, right, and Michael Cima outside their labs at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

(Photo by M. Scott Brauer, courtesy of the M.I.T. news office)

M.I.T. Professor Robert Langer has been named a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, an award that will be given to him by President Obama early this year.

“I’m thrilled,” Langer said in a phone interview Friday. “It’s a tremendous honor.”

At the ceremony, 12 researchers will receive the National Medal of Science, and 11 inventors will be awarded with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. In a statement released by the White House, these medals were referred to as “the highest honors bestowed by the United States Government upon scientists, engineers, and inventors.”

In addition to Langer, Dr. Sallie Chisholm of M.I.T. and Dr. Barry Mazur of Harvard University will receive the National Medal of Science.

“I am proud to honor these inspiring American innovators,” President Obama said of the 23 recipients in the statement. “They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this Nation great—and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.”

In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded Langer with the National Medal of Science.

“It’s not a usual occurrence,” Langer said of winning both awards. “I’m very, very honored.”

Langer has published about 1,200 research papers and holds more than 800 scientific patents issued and pending. In addition, he has been the recipient of more than 200 major national and international awards.

Langer’s research has resulted in the development of polymer-based, drug-delivery systems, which enable drugs to be continuously released in the body over a prolonged period. Most notably, this research led to the first FDA-approved treatment for brain cancer in 20 years, in which chemotherapy is directly administered to the tumor.

A pioneer in the tissue engineering field, Langer’s scientific discoveries have formed the basis for creating artificial skin for burn victims.

His research has also been applied to areas such as diagnostics, vaccines, innovative waste disposal technologies, tissue repair, and novel therapeutics.

Langer is one of very few people elected to all three U.S. National Academies—engineering, sciences, and medicine—and at the age of 43, he was the youngest in history to ever receive this distinction.

The now 64-year-old joined M.I.T. in 1977 as a visiting professor in what was then the Department of Nutrition and Food Science. A graduate of Cornell University, he received the Sc.D. from MIT in chemical engineering in 1974. In 2005, M.I.T. named Langer an Institute Professor, the highest honor awarded by the M.I.T. faculty and administration.

Langer said that he is looking forward to the ceremony, and to have an opportunity to talk with Obama, whom he had met at a Northwestern University Commencement in 2006.

In Obama’s biography, “The Audacity of Hope,” the President talks about his interaction with Langer.

He writes that “Langer isn’t just an ivory tower academic -- he holds more than five hundred patents, and his research has led to everything from the development of the nicotine patch to brain cancer treatments.”

Obama then writes about how he asked Langer on his opinion of stem cell research.

“Remembering the recent controversies surrounding stem cell research, I asked him whether the Bush Administration’s limitation on the number of stem cell lines was the biggest impediment to advances in his field. He shook his head.

“‘Having more stem cell lines would definitely be useful,’ Langer told me, ‘But the real problem we’re seeing is significant cutbacks in federal grants.’”

Obama goes on to explain why his talk with Langer was insightful, and how there needs to be more federal funding for scientific research.

Langer said his mission in life is not to just to make discoveries. It’s to make discoveries that will help people.

“Things that make people live happier, healthier lives,” he said. “[That’s] the thrust of what we’ve done.”

Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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