The chemical engineer Robert Langer co-founded Covid-19 vaccine maker Moderna, and his innovations have helped create more than 100 products from artificial skin to messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. The 73-year-old has a mountain of research papers and patents to his name, on top of which he has started more than 40 companies and won more than 200 awards, including the Queen Elizabeth prize, which has been called the “Nobel for engineering”. Langer’s biomedical engineering lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he holds a professorship, employs more than 100 researchers. He spoke to the Observer to mark Unesco World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development, held earlier this month.
Last year you debuted on Forbes magazine’s billionaires list. Being a co-founder of Moderna has been profitable! How did it feel?
It’s embarrassing. Everybody sees it. I have never sold a Moderna share, so it’s not like I’m spending the money. But I never did any of this to get rich. I’ve never sought high paying jobs. All my life I’ve looked for things that I felt would make a difference.
Did you think Moderna would be successful when you established it in 2010?
The platform – mRNA-based medicines delivered to the body via nanoparticles – had revolutionary potential and, because of my work on the drug delivery of large molecules, I thought we could do it, even if others doubted. I remember telling my wife that I thought Moderna would be the most successful biotech company in history! Of course, the Covid-19 vaccine accelerated the company’s success, but we were only able to make it because of all the underlying technology we had already developed.
You grew up in Albany, New York. Your dad ran a small liquor store and your mum took care of you and your sister. How did you get into chemical engineering?
My parents bought me Gilbert hobby sets, including a chemistry one. I set up a little lab in our basement mixing chemicals and making the colours change and I loved it. In high school, though I liked chemistry, math was the only subject I did well in. I was advised to do engineering at college, and I listened. I did terribly in my first year at Cornell except in chemistry, so I decided I had better major in chemical engineering.
You did your PhD in chemical engineering at MIT but you didn’t follow your classmates into high paying jobs in the oil industry…
I had decided I wanted to use my chemical engineering to help people and so I declined the job offers. After many unanswered letters, I got a postdoctoral position doing cancer research. It was in the lab of Judah Folkman, a professor and surgeon at Boston children’s hospital, known for his unusual hires. It changed my life. I was the only engineer in the whole hospital. I started to think about how materials got into medicine. Doctors would use ladies’ girdle material for the basis of an artificial heart, and mattress stuffing for the basis of a breast implant. I thought: why not instead design the material you wanted from first principles.
Both Moderna and Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccines are different to previous vaccines: they insert mRNA to teach our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response. What was your specific contribution to the technology?
Being the first person to deliver nucleic acids like RNA and DNA to the body via tiny particles. Folkman had the idea that if you could stop blood vessel formation inside a tumour, that might be a new way to treat cancer. But to solve the problem we had to deliver large molecules to the body. Nobody before us had done that and we were told it was impossible: the molecules were too big to travel through any capsule or particle and too fragile to be placed inside them. But I made tiny particles – polymer capsules – that could deliver just about any protein or nucleic acid for a sustained period. We published the findings in 1976.
People were sceptical at first – I couldn’t get grants or a position in an engineering department – but over time, scientists’ thinking changed: perhaps you could make other types of tiny particles and deliver other macromolecules [the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines use lipid nanoparticles for delivery]. The first blood vessel inhibitor to treat cancer, Avastin, was launched in 2004 by Genentech in part using techniques started in Folkman’s lab.
Where else is drug delivery technology that you pioneered being used today?
Lots of people have built on the work we started, coming up with different applications and improvements. Today injectable microparticles are used to treat mental health diseases such as schizophrenia and opioid addiction as well as type 2 diabetes and pain. Our work has been critical for drug-eluting stents. Nanoparticles are also being used to treat cancer and certain rare diseases.
Moderna is developing mRNA medicines for a wide range of diseases beyond Covid-19. Clinical trials under way include a flu and an HIV vaccine. Are you expecting them to succeed and what are you most excited about?
I expect a lot of them will, if not every single trial. And, over time, I expect you will see more success because there’ll be other companies too, and more trials. I’m excited about all these possible new treatments. If personalised cancer vaccines work, that’ll be a big deal.
You are also a pioneer in the field of tissue engineering. What are some of the advances you have made there?
In the early 1980s the surgeon Joseph Vacanti and I came up with the idea of making three-dimensional scaffolds that you could put different kinds of cell types on to make tissues and organs. Since then, my work has taken in lots of different tissues and organs: we’ve engineered blood vessels and created artificial skin for burn victims. We have also made new materials that cells adhere to better.
Are the drug companies, including Moderna, doing enough to get Covid-19 vaccines to poorer nations? Covax, the global Covid-19 vaccines procurement initiative, has criticised the pharmaceutical companies for a “lack of sharing of licences, technology and know-how”.
I believe that both the drug companies and the governments are doing the best they can. Certainly, the companies are expanding manufacturing capacity. Moderna announced this week it is working to set up a plant in Kenya. It also announced it is expanding its earlier patent pledge to not enforce its Covid-19-related patents during the coronavirus pandemic to now never enforcing them in low- and middle-income countries. Furthermore, the latest information is that the problem is not about having enough vaccines, it’s about being able to get them into people’s arms. It is a logistical challenge. The African Union recently declined an option to acquire 60m doses from Moderna.
Moderna has also been in a patent dispute with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) over whether three NIH scientists should also be credited for finding the genetic sequence that is central to the vaccine. The company has backed down in the hopes of reaching an amicable resolution with the NIH, but will this ultimately end up in court?
I don’t think so. Moderna has offered the NIH co-ownership of the patent. Moderna has always thought highly of working with the NIH, and I think also vice versa. We are still working together. The relationship has been a win for us both and for the world.
How did you create a product that prevents hair frizz?
In 2005 I agreed to get involved in starting Living Proof, a hair – and later skin care products – company. One aim was to prevent hair frizz. We took a fundamental look and found these polymers – already existing and approved for other uses – that were super water repellent. A second aim was to give hair more body. We repurposed polymers we had already developed that had led to some new gene therapy agents. Unilever bought the hair part of Living Proof in 2016 and we spun off the skin care part to Shiseido.
What are you working on in your lab currently?
One of the biggest areas of work is with the Gates Foundation on creating new technologies for the developing world. For example, on vaccines we are working on a new approach where you give just a single injection with nanoparticles or microparticles and it delivers the vaccine by popping at different months, so you get the boosters too. Our previous work on long-acting oral pills we have licensed to Lyndra Therapeutics [co-founded by Langer in 2015]. Going into clinical trials soon should be a malaria pill that can last for two weeks and a contraceptive pill designed to be given once a month. Separately in the lab, we continue to work on delivery systems to get different types of RNA and Crispr [gene editing] inside cells, and in tissue engineering we’re trying to create materials that don’t get fibrotic.
Is engineering undervalued? How can it win more respect?
It depends on the country, but science and engineering in general, certainly in the United States, doesn’t get as much status and respect as I’d like to see. I think it’s important to stress how much engineers can and have changed the world for the better. It’s a thrill for me to see engineering and biology improving people’s lives; that’s been my dream from the beginning.
What’s your advice to young people interested in an engineering career?
Shoot high and aim to solve big problems. It’s OK to take risks and it’s OK to fail. And diversity of any kind in your background is a plus. The more people come at things with different perspectives, the better for solving big problems.
You are known for exercising a lot. What do you do to keep fit?
Sadly my dad died of a heart attack at 61 and I have a tendency towards high cholesterol. I want to be here for my family and students. I walk, run and lift weights for probably two or three hours each day. But I multitask: the whole time we’ve been talking, I’ve been walking.
A new series of short films featuring “engineering heroes” including Robert Langer can be viewed on the Royal Academy of Engineering website here