A pioneer of medical technologies that have benefited millions of people has become the latest winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.
Professor Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has won the £1m award for his development of drug-release systems, tissue building and microchip implants.
The Queen Elizabeth Prize, designed to become a “Nobel” for engineering, was set up with cross-party backing and industry support to celebrate innovators with global impact.
Prof Langer’s work has been cited 170,000 times – making him the most cited engineer in history – and he has more than 1,000 patents granted or pending for his inventions.
It is estimated that as many as two billion people have in some way been touched by technologies devised and developed by him and his teams.
In the 1970s, in the face of widespread opposition from the medical and scientific establishment, Prof Langer pioneered the use of materials known as polymers which could gradually release sophisticated medications.
It had been thought that the large molecules involved in treatments for diseases such as cancer and diabetes could not pass through polymers, but Prof Langer found ways to achieve this, allowing the development of devices to release controlled amounts of drugs.
Working with surgeons at Boston Children’s Hospital, he developed the first substances that could block the spread of blood vessels in tumours – a process called angiogenesis.
His aim was to target anti-cancer drugs where they were most needed, to avoid harm to the whole body. Among his first inventions were “wafers” containing medication that could be inserted at the right locations, including brain tumours.