Robert Langer, a pioneer in drug delivery and the most cited engineer in history, has co-founded 30 companies and treated more than 20 million patients as a result of his innovations. In a conversation with Wired, he spoke about his career, which has spanned for 4 decades and began with his 1976 discovery of a method to delay delivery of large molecules.
Many new drugs are large molecules, Langer said, because they are complex and contain a lot of information. The structure of these large molelecules, including peptides, proteins and anitbodies, fall apart rapidly in the body. Langer knew that polymers could delay a drug’s release over a long period of time, so his team carved channels into the polymer to make the technique work for molecules of any size or charge.
“ To take 1 example, the peptide hormones that people want to use to treat cancer and endometriosis are too large to be absorbed orally – and if you inject them, they’re destroyed right away. When put in the polymer systems, they can be continuously delivered over weeks, months or years,” he explained.
Langer has devoted his career to to engineering smarter drug delivery systems, in the hopes of improving medication adherence, he said in the interview. “In terms of compliance, sadly, fewer than 50% of people take their drugs as prescribed, which is a problem in people with Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and other mental health diseases. This leads to more than $100 billion (£82bn) in costs. The New England Medical Journal showed that with hypertension in the US alone, around 100,000 deaths could’ve been prevented if people had taken their meds correctly.”
One of the systems that his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on is a long-acting oral pill that could release an accurate drug dose for weeks. “When the capsule dissolves in the stomach, the material opens up to fix it in place until it degrades. And we can tune the degradation so this takes place on the set timescale,” he said.
Medication compliance is problem in developing countries, Langer said, so his team is collaborating with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop an long-acting oral capsule for drugs like antimalarials.
One of his companies, Lyndra, is examining a way to treat Alzheimer’s with a pill that a patient would take once a month, instead of 4 times a day.
He also spoke about the importance of collaboration and diversity in research, saying that “it’s been very important. Different people bring different perspectives and expertise. They also bring different ideas.”
Tarveda Therapeutics, a company that Langer co-founded, said today that it secured a $30 million Series D equity financing round led by Versant Ventures.
The company’s CEO, Drew Fromkin, told the Boston Business Journal that the investment would enable Tarveda to advance its platform of miniature antibody-drug conjugates, used to penetrate into solid tumors and deliver a drug payload.
Tarveda’s lead drug targets neuroendocrine and small cell lung cancers and is in phase I trials. The company anticipates that data will be ready by the end of this year.