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MIT scientist Robert Langer talks about the future of research

The busy professor and entrepreneur — with more than 1,000 patents — was the recent recipient of the Queen Elizabeth engineering prize.

Cambridge, MA--4/30/2015--Robert Langer (cq), of MIT's Langer Labs, is photographed, on Thursday, April 30, 2015. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: 051015first Reporter: XXX
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

We have a number of things on the front burner. The big areas would be drug-delivery systems. We’re doing a number of things with Bill Gates and his foundation for the Third World. Pills you can swallow that last for a really long time, like months. We’re also doing a lot of work on nanotech in the lab, trying to deliver different kinds of gene therapy and cancer drugs, drugs in general. We’re doing a lot of work in cell therapy — we’re working on new kinds of diabetes treatments based on cell encapsulation.

There’s so much great work going on, and what’s happening, especially here in Boston and Cambridge, is that there is this excitement about translating discoveries to things that can help human health, so you have all these biotech and medical device companies, and by and large they’re doing well. I don’t see it stopping.

The negative force right now is the drying up of government funding, particularly for basic research. In the last few years it has been harder and harder for people, particularly young people, to get [National Institutes of Health] grants, and if that continues, it will have a negative effect.

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So much good stuff has come out of basic research, research that you don’t really know where it’s going to go. So you want people to be able to get grants to do that, you want places to be able to train young students. People say to me, “Should we invest? What are the really important areas? Nanotechnology, regenerative medicine, the genome?” All of those are very important, but what you really want to do is fund the things we don’t even have a name for now because they haven’t happened. 

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LOOKING AHEAD Langer recently won the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, which comes with a $1.5 million award. He’ll travel to England in October to meet the queen.