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Robert Langer

Millennium Technology Prize

2008

Dr. Robert Langer is a scientist-entrepreneur who holds over 1,400 granted and pending patents and has founded over 40 biotechnology firms, including Moderna, which has developed an innovative vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Instead of taking the conventional approach of inactivating or attenuating the virus to create a vaccine, Moderna identified a messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) that produces a spike protein that protrudes on the outside of the coronavirus. When this mRNA is injected into people and enters cells, they make the protein, which moves to the outside of the cells and prompts an immune response. 

“This way, you don’t need a giant manufacturing plant to make the protein for the vaccine. The human body can be the factory that makes the vaccine,” Professor Langer said. 

Professor Langer is one of the world’s most cited researchers, and the most cited engineer, and his career has been characterised by originality. In the 1970s, he developed polymer materials that allowed a protein’s large molecules to pass through membranes in a controlled manner to inhibit angiogenesis, the process through which tumours recruit blood vessels. 

When he was awarded the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize for this and other work, his citation noted “his inventions and development of innovative biomaterials for controlled drug release and tissue regeneration that have saved and improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people”.

Beyond his work at Moderna, he is partnering the Gates Foundation on another COVID-19 vaccine that would be encapsulated in tiny particles that burst different times, so that a single vaccine shot provides immunity that renews itself. He is also involved in many other projects.

Dr. Langer is currently an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the highest distinction awarded to a faculty member, and his laboratory at MIT is the largest academic biomedical engineering laboratory in the world. 

He has authored over 1,500 scientific papers and received over 220 major awards, including Portugal’s Medal of Science, the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, Kyoto Prize, Kabiller Prize and Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. He is also the youngest person, at age 43, to be elected to the three National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and one of only three living people to have received both the United States National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology and Innovation.