Moderna co-founder was told to ‘find another job’ after pitching drug delivery idea
His ground-breaking drug delivery method was initially scoffed at by the scientific community, but his relentless experimentation eventually laid the bedrock for cancer treatment and led to the founding of Covid-19 vaccine giant Moderna.
Professor Robert Langer recounted his journey in the drug development industry at the 11th Global Young Scientist Summit, held at the Singapore University of Design and Technology on Jan 18.
Prof Langer, 74, graduated with a doctorate in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). However, he applied for post-doctorate jobs in the medical industry because of his passion to help people. Unsurprisingly, no one would hire him because his field was unrelated to medicine.
But he remained committed to his calling, and was advised by an older scientist to try Dr Judah Folkman, a Harvard University professor and surgeon-in-chief at Boston Children’s Hospital who was known for hiring people with unusual backgrounds.
Prof Langer landed a job as Dr Folkman’s assistant and began working at the hospital in 1974.
Dr Folkman was studying metastasis, the process of how cancerous tumours grow and spread throughout the body. He theorised that tumours stimulated angiogenesis, or the growth of blood vessels, to provide them with nutrients and allow them to spread.
He tasked Prof Langer to find a method to deliver angiogenesis-inhibiting drugs to the tumour.
“I spent years in the laboratory experimenting with different materials and different designs to deliver the drugs. I found 200 different ways not to get this done.” said Prof Langer at the summit.
“But eventually, I was able to make tiny little nanoparticles which could deliver molecules of any size, including nucleic acids and mRNA.”
He innovated a way to encase drug molecules within an ultra-small particle, which could attach to the tumour and release the drug over time via diffusion. He published his findings in 1976 in Nature, a prestigious scientific journal.
“When I first presented this work, it was ridiculed. I was 27 years old, the youngest person in that room.
“When I finished the talk, I thought all these older people would encourage me as a young researcher. But as I stepped off the podium, a bunch of them came up to me and said, ‘We don’t believe anything you just said’.”
Scientists dismissed his work, believing that large molecules were too big to exit the nanoparticles.
Undeterred, Prof Langer sought a faculty position in a university to obtain more funding to continue his research, but no one would take him.
“No chemical engineering department in the world would hire me. They said, ‘All this biology stuff you’re doing doesn’t make any sense for a chemical engineer. You should be doing oil and energy’.”
Prof Langer eventually managed to land a job in the MIT nutrition department. However, he was later advised to leave by his colleagues when they found out about his unusual field of research.
“One evening, I went to a faculty dinner at a Chinese restaurant with some senior MIT professors. A senior scientist sat quizzing us while smoking a cigar. When he heard my concept for drug delivery, he blew a cloud of smoke in my face and said, ‘You better start looking for another job’,” said Prof Langer.
But he persisted in his research, and his work slowly gained traction in the scientific community. He then tried to file a patent for his drug delivery idea.
“Five years in a row, the patent examiner rejected it,” he said. “But you can tell by now (that) I don’t like to give up, so I started to think about how could we convince the examiner to approve it.”
Prof Langer compiled citations from eminent scientists who commended his work over the years, and finally secured a patent in 1983. This would mark the start of an illustrious series of successes.
He went on to file over 1,200 patents, licensed to more than 300 pharmaceutical, biotechnology, chemical and medical device companies. He also became the most cited engineer in history, with more than 380,000 citations from the myriad research papers he authored or co-authored.
He founded or co-founded 41 companies. He co-founded Moderna in 2010.
“Once I was able to deliver large molecules over long times, I thought this might be a great way to deliver vaccines,” he told The Straits Times in an e-mail interview on Jan 20.
“I published my first paper on this in the Journal Of Immunological Methods in 1979. But it was not until I helped start Moderna that I contributed to the industrial development of novel vaccines.”
Moderna made mRNA-based medicines using Prof Langer’s drug delivery method, which eventually became the foundation for the development of Moderna’s Covid-19 mRNA vaccines.
“I’m highly prejudiced but I think Moderna’s future will be incredible,” he said.
“The scientists and leadership (at Moderna) are superb... The company has some 50 programmes being developed for new vaccines and new therapies.
“Moderna has changed the world and the medical field, and I believe it will continue to do so.”
Asked at the summit what kept him going and believing in his idea despite the repeated rejections and setbacks, Prof Langer replied: “I was very lucky that Judah Folkman went through a lot of the same things as I did, where people didn’t believe in what he was doing, and yet he kept trying and believing. He was a great role model.
“In my upbringing, my dad ran a tiny liquor store in Albany (New York), and he worked all the time – another great role model. Maybe some part of it is genetics. I am a really stubborn person.”
The summit, organised by the National Research Foundation, was held from Jan 17 to Jan 20. It featured lectures and panel discussions with 21 eminent scientists, including Nobel laureates and winners of the Millennium Technology Prize, awarded by independent foundation Technology Academy Finland.