Everybody has heard of the Nobel Prize, right? And I can bet that you can also think of famous scientists that have received the Nobel Prize for their enormous contribution to science and medicine.
But can you name a few engineers who have done the same? Maybe not. The reason is that while there are a few inventions that have gotten recognition by the Nobel committee, more emphasis is placed on ‘discoveries’ than ‘inventions’.
This changed in 2011 when the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering was announced by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The purpose was to award groundbreaking innovation in engineering that would benefit humanity.
This year the prize was awarded to Dr. Robert Langer, an engineer, entrepreneur and a scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his brilliant work in the field of polymer design and drug delivery (drugs here refer to medicines).
The Problem With Cancer Drugs (Medicines)
As a graduate student, Dr. Langer worked on identifying drug treatments for cancer. However, he soon stumbled upon a common problem encountered in drug delivery.
Medicines, when directly ingested or injected into the body, can cause two problems. First, the medicine is quickly degraded by the body and hence is needed in very high doses to be effective. Secondly, the medicine could cause severe side effects when given all at once. Both these problems resulted in the medicine being administered frequently to the patient.
The solution was to control the rate at which the medicine can be slowly released into the body so it would remain effective for a long time with minimum side effects.
An Amazing Use For Polymers
Dr. Langer came up with a unique solution to the problem - to create synthetic, porous polymers in which the medicine could be embedded. Polymers are made up of large molecules that string together in a repetitive pattern to form a continuous substance.
Plastic is an example of a synthetic polymer while rubber and silk are naturally occurring polymers. Polymers are stable compounds and can be made relatively inert so that our body does not react adversely to it. This makes polymers ideal for the drug delivery process.
So, how do these polymers help in the drug delivery? The polymer may be designed to dissolve or shrink slowly on contact with body fluids such that the embedded medicine may be slowly released. The polymer could also be designed like a porous jelly that will allow the medicine to slowly diffuse out.
There are so many exciting and innovative ways to design the polymers, making drug delivery one of the fastest growing research areas.
Courtesy BBC, qeprize.org, uweb.engr.washington.edu
About The Author: Rasika Vartak is a scientist-in-making. After receiving her Ph.D. from UT Health Science center at San Antonio, she is now pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. She lives with her husband and her cat in San Jose and enjoys reading everything from grave scientific articles to fun fiction in her spare time.