Robert Langer: Edison of Medicine | Lex Fridman Podcast #105 | Summary and Q&A

June 30, 2020
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Robert Langer: Edison of Medicine | Lex Fridman Podcast #105


Bob Langer, MIT professor and biotechnology specialist, shares insights on the importance of biotechnology in developing treatments for various diseases, his passion for magic and science, and the challenges and successes of his research and startup journey.

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Key Insights

  • ๐Ÿ”ฌ The biotechnology field, specifically in drug delivery systems and tissue engineering, is an important and promising area of research and development.
  • ๐Ÿ’ฐ Funding is crucial for advancements in biotechnology research, as it allows for the development of new drugs and medical technologies.
  • ๐Ÿ”‘ Key to the success of a startup is a combination of a strong scientific foundation, strategic decision-making, and a team of talented individuals.
  • ๐Ÿ’ก Innovation and discovery in science can be likened to the surprise and wonder of magic, making the work of scientists a magical process.
  • ๐Ÿฉบ The human body is incredibly complex, and understanding its biology and chemistry is essential in developing effective treatments and drug delivery systems.
  • ๐ŸŒ Philanthropy plays a significant role in funding scientific research and development, particularly in addressing global challenges such as cancer and disease in developing countries.
  • ๐Ÿ’Š Drug delivery systems, including microchips and intelligent devices, have the potential to revolutionize the way drugs are administered and targeted within the body.
  • ๐Ÿง  Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine offer possibilities for creating and repairing organs and tissues, bringing us closer to a future where organ transplantation may not be necessary.


the following is a conversation was Bob Langer professor at MIT and one of the most cited researchers in history specializing in biotechnology fields of drug delivery systems and tissue engineering he has bridged theory and practice by being a key member and driving force in launching many successful biotech companies out of MIT this conversation w... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: Could you explain the process of drug delivery and its challenges?

Drug delivery involves getting a drug to the target location in the body at the right dosage and in a safe manner. One of the challenges is targeting specific cells, such as cancer cells, while avoiding healthy cells. Another challenge is getting drugs across different barriers, like the blood-brain barrier. Smart drug delivery systems that can respond to physiological signals are also being researched.

Q: How does tissue engineering work, and what are its possibilities?

Tissue engineering involves building organs or tissues from scratch. It typically involves using a scaffold or structure on which cells can grow and develop. Tissue engineering has already been successful in creating skin and blood vessels, and there are clinical trials for other tissues like the liver and kidneys. The possibilities include regenerating various organs and developing organs-on-chip for better drug testing.

Q: What are the challenges of proving the safety and efficacy of new drugs in clinical trials?

Clinical trials involve a stepwise process of testing drugs in cells, animal models, and eventually human patients. The challenges include selecting appropriate animal models and designing clinical trials with clear endpoints. Safety is always a priority, so proving the safety of a drug is typically the first step before proving its effectiveness.

Q: How important is the role of business people in the success of biotech startups?

Business acumen is crucial for the success of biotech startups. Business people play a key role in hiring the right team, developing a strategic plan, raising funds, and navigating regulatory and clinical trial processes. While scientists provide valuable research and discoveries, business people bring the necessary skills to commercialize and market the innovations. It often takes a combination of both to build a successful biotech company.

Q: What are the potential future applications of AI and engineering in drug delivery and tissue engineering?

AI and engineering have the potential to revolutionize drug delivery and tissue engineering. AI can help analyze large data sets for drug discovery and assist in designing more effective delivery systems. Engineering innovations can lead to the development of smart drug delivery systems that respond to physiological signals and improve targeted delivery. Nanotechnology and miniaturization may also enable new possibilities in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

Q: How does the patenting process work, and what are its strengths and drawbacks?

The patenting process involves submitting a patent application to the appropriate patent office, usually with the help of patent attorneys. The application goes through multiple review stages, and the final decision lies with the patent office. Patents protect intellectual property and incentivize research and development by granting exclusive rights to the inventors. However, patents can also limit access to new treatments or technologies, particularly when they are not made widely available or when licensing fees are high. Striking a balance between innovation and access is an ongoing challenge.


This conversation is with Bob Langer, a professor at MIT and a renowned researcher in biotechnology. He discusses his work in drug delivery systems and tissue engineering, as well as the connection between science and magic. The conversation also touches on the challenges in drug delivery and tissue engineering, the role of AI in these fields, and the impact of pharmaceutical drugs on society.

Questions & Answers

Q: How does Bob Langer see the connection between magic and science?

Bob Langer sees a connection between magic and science in that both can surprise and fascinate. Just as magic tricks can leave you in awe, scientific discoveries can also be unexpected and wondrous.

Q: Is there a scientific process to magic tricks?

Bob Langer believes that the duality between the magician and the observer in magic tricks is similar to the fascination in science. While the magician knows the workings of the trick, the observer is initially unaware, creating a sense of mystery and wonder.

Q: What is the most amazing magic trick Bob Langer has ever seen?

Bob Langer mentions a magic trick called the "invisible pack" where a selected card ends up being the only card turned upside down in a real deck. He finds it fascinating because it defies expectations and demonstrates the unexpected possibilities in both magic and science.

Q: What are some rejected papers or ideas that had a big impact on Bob Langer's life?

Bob Langer recalls the rejection of his early research papers on blood vessel inhibitors. Despite the initial rejection, he learned to better explain his work in subsequent attempts and eventually made groundbreaking discoveries in the field.

Q: How did Bob Langer seek out big ideas in his research?

Bob Langer believes that exposure to others with big ideas and spotting potential discoveries by understanding their broad implications were key factors in seeking out groundbreaking ideas. He also acknowledges the element of spontaneity and serendipity in the discovery process.

Q: How complicated is the biology and chemistry of the human body?

Bob Langer agrees that the human body is exceptionally complex, and while progress has been made, there is still much to learn and understand. He emphasizes the need to continue exploring and studying the various mechanisms and pathways of the human body.

Q: What are the challenges in drug delivery?

Bob Langer mentions several challenges in drug delivery, including targeted delivery to specific cells or tissues, overcoming barriers such as the blood-brain barrier, developing smart delivery systems that respond to physiological signals, and reducing costs while maintaining effectiveness.

Q: Can drug delivery systems become more like robotic agents in the future?

While the current focus is on validating and ensuring the effectiveness of drug delivery systems, Bob Langer believes that in the future, there is a possibility of incorporating more intelligence and sensing capabilities into these systems, providing a potential for robotic-like capabilities.

Q: How close are we to tissue engineering organs and tissues?

Bob Langer reveals that progress has been made in tissue engineering, with skin and blood vessels already being engineered and even approved by the FDA. Clinical trials are also underway for other tissues, such as liver, kidneys, and neural tissue.

Q: What are the challenges in tissue engineering?

Bob Langer mentions challenges such as immune rejection, finding the right cell types and scaffolds, and making tissues that function properly. However, he remains optimistic about the future development of tissue engineering.

Q: Will tissue engineering have a significant impact on human longevity?

Bob Langer does not believe there will be a radical increase in human longevity in the near future. However, he sees potential for improved quality of life and the potential for some tissues to be regenerated, leading to longer and healthier lives.

Q: What is the most beautiful scientific idea in biology that Bob Langer has come across?

Bob Langer finds the idea behind CRISPR, a gene-editing system derived from bacteria, to be beautiful. The ability to cut and paste genes has transformative potential in various areas of biology and medicine.

Q: What are the strengths and drawbacks of the patenting process?

Bob Langer believes that patents are crucial for securing funding in the development of new drugs or devices. However, once a successful drug is developed, ensuring its availability to everyone can become a challenge due to the exclusivity provided by patents.

Q: What is the most expensive part of the drug development process?

Bob Langer states that clinical trials, particularly proving the safety and efficacy of a new drug in humans, constitute the most expensive part of the drug development process.

Q: Are there phase shifts or big leaps in the field of medicine and bioengineering?

Bob Langer acknowledges that both incremental work and big leaps occur in the field. Major breakthroughs like genetic engineering or CRISPR represent substantial leaps, while incremental work is necessary for the continuous improvement of drug development and medical technologies.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Bob Langer's research and companies are at the forefront of developing treatments for COVID-19, including a promising vaccine candidate.

  • He discusses the connection between magic and science, highlighting the fascination and surprise factor in both fields.

  • Langer shares the challenges he faced in his career, including rejected research papers, and emphasizes the importance of persistence and learning from feedback.

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