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The common denominator in several coronavirus efforts? MIT’s Bob Langer

At 71, the MIT science superstar is ‘working more than ever’ these days

Robert Langer at his home in North Falmouth. "This is me" he says. "This is where and how I work."
Robert Langer at his home in North Falmouth. "This is me" he says. "This is where and how I work."Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

He advised New Balance on the face masks the company is now making. He attends videoconferences at Moderna, a Cambridge biotech he cofounded, about its experimental vaccine. He guides another biotech he helped create on a device to draw blood for antibody tests.

Robert Langer may be cloistered in his Newton and North Falmouth homes, but the prolific 71-year-old inventor and biomedical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the common denominator in a wide range of efforts to fight COVID-19.

“I wish I was chilling,” he replied by e-mail after a reporter reviewed the engineer’s many projects and joked that, by his hyperkinetic standards, Langer was chilling. “I think I’m working more than ever.”

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Of course, many leading scientists have mobilized at warp speed to try to develop treatments, vaccines, and diagnostic tools for the most urgent public health crisis they have ever seen. It would be surprising if Langer, one of the most decorated scientists in the world, wasn’t among them.

The author of some 1,500 scientific articles, he holds about 1,400 issued and pending patents. At least 400 drug, chemical, and medical device companies have licensed his patents. Science, the academic journal, calls him the most cited engineer in history. His 220 major awards include the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers.

Still, it’s easy to miss Langer’s fingerprints on several ventures that have drawn considerable media coverage during the pandemic.

Take Moderna. In late February, the high-flying biotech delivered a few hundred vials of an experimental vaccine that it produced in a mere 42 days to the Maryland-based Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Moderna was the first drug company to enter clinical trials with a potential vaccine, which researchers began injecting into the shoulders of healthy volunteers on March 16 in Seattle. If it’s successful, Moderna hopes to start the second phase of the trial soon and the final phase in the fall.

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There is no approved vaccine for COVID-19, but the World Health Organization recently listed 76 candidates, including several from drug companies or laboratories with Massachusetts ties. Experts say it will probably be at least 12 to 18 months before one could be deployed.

Traditionally, vaccines are made from proteins produced by infectious viruses and bacteria, or from weakened forms of the microbes themselves, to create an immune response. Moderna’s vaccine uses custom-built messenger RNA ― the genetic material that directs cells to do something ― to trigger an immune response.

It’s a revolutionary approach that can create an experimental vaccine quickly but has yet to result in one being approved. What’s overlooked in many news stories is that the technology behind it draws partly on Langer’s insights into nanoparticles. Those particles, visible only with an electron microscope, form tiny droplets that protect RNA molecules on their way to cells.

Langer, who sits on Moderna’s board of directors and scientific advisory board, said he confers several times a week through videoconferences and phone calls with chief executive Stephane Bancel and scientists at the publicly traded biotech. Langer is optimistic about Moderna’s experimental vaccine, which, if approved, would be its first product to get to market.

“The beauty of messenger RNA is you can do [vaccine development] so quickly,” he said, because scientists skip the time-consuming step of culturing an actual virus for a traditional vaccine. “I believe in the science and the company, but it’s too early to know what’s going to happen.”

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An expert in materials science, Langer has also advised a company that couldn’t seem further removed from the world of biotech: New Balance, the Boston athletic-shoe company.

On March 20, Dr. James Rathmell, who oversees the anesthesiology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, wrote Langer to say that health care workers urgently needed masks to protect them from airborne coronavirus. Rathmell had been talking to several manufacturers that had offered to make them.

“I am trying to quickly assemble a team to vet these ideas and I need someone with engineering experience to help," Rathmell wrote in an e-mail that Langer shared. "Can you connect me with a person or persons who might be able to help us ASAP?”

Langer, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT and oversees a lab of about 100 researchers there, was soon talking to top executives at New Balance about the best design and materials. The mask needed to fit snugly and act as a filter, but be breathable.

“We went from the concept of a mask to a physical prototype within three days,” said Dave Wheeler, New Balance’s executive vice president of global supply chain. Wheeler had never heard of Langer but was impressed by how quickly he responded to questions. “He sends e-mails at all hours of the day, whether it’s 11 o’clock at night or five in the morning,” Wheeler said.

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The mask that New Balance settled on is a five-ply polyurethane covering whose texture resembles a Swiffer sweeping pad, Wheeler said. The mask has elastic shoelaces as adjustable straps, allowing the wearer to achieve a tight fit.

New Balance is making 100,000 masks a week at factories in Norridgewock, Maine, and in Lawrence, and expects to ramp that up in May to 250,000 a week, Wheeler said. Each mask costs $1.27, which covers materials and labor. New Balance is selling the masks to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which distributes them to hospitals, nursing homes, and police and fire departments.

“I’m a big believer in masks,” said Langer, who began wearing surgical masks or bandannas before Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House coronavirus task force member, recommended the precaution on April 3. Federal health officials initially discouraged Americans from donning masks for fear that it would result in a shortage for health care workers. That may have been understandable, Langer said, but in retrospect, “That was a mistake.”

In another coronavirus project, Langer is advising a small biotech he helped found, Seventh Sense Biosystems, of Medford. The company makes a push-button device that resembles a computer mouse. Called a TAP, it has 30 microneedles clustered in a circle the size of a pencil eraser, and a vacuum that extracts blood from the upper arm.

The Food and Drug Administration previously cleared the device so people at home could draw blood samples that laboratories would test for sugar levels. Seventh Sense is seeking an FDA emergency use authorization to collect blood samples that could be tested for antibodies that indicate someone fought off a coronavirus infection. Langer has worked extensively on microneedle technology.

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“Bob’s a legend,” said Rick Bente, who became CEO of Seventh Sense in October. “He never seems to run out of energy."

Langer, a native of Albany, N.Y., and one of only 12 elite Institute Professors at the school, said he also continues to conduct seminars online with students during the health crisis.

One thing he’s not doing is traveling. Ordinarily, he takes dozens of flights a year to lecture at scientific meetings in Europe, Asia, and the United States. When his three adult children were young, he said, he often flew to Israel to speak and then hopped back on the plane to go home without spending the night abroad.

But now he stays at home with his wife, Laura, who has a PhD in brain and cognitive sciences from MIT, and two of their children. When he’s at their house on Cape Cod, he often works on his laptop in the laundry room or in an exercise room while riding a recumbent stationary bike.

He says he’s never experienced anything comparable to this health crisis.

“This is the worst thing I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it’s hardly over yet," he said. “9/11 was an awful thing, but this is far worse in that it’s killing many more people, and it’s really affecting many more lives.”

President Trump has been accused of repeatedly disregarding the advice of scientists who predicted that COVID-19 would kill tens of thousands of Americans, as it has already, with over 67,000 deaths attributed to the disease as of Sunday. Langer hopes the crisis will lead to renewed respect for scientific research.

“Not all scientists will agree on everything," he said. “But I think that you really want science to be valued. You want to have decisions that are science-based.”


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com