The field of medicine has tried all manner of techniques to ensure that patients take their daily pills, from issuing gentle reminders to checking whether prescriptions have been refilled.
Robert S. Langer wants to tackle the problem with technology: loading a computer chip with medicine and embedding it in the patient's body.
Science fiction? Try fact. The concept already has been successfully tested in people with osteoporosis, with implanted circuitry that delivers daily drug doses for weeks on end, and now the Gates Foundation is funding the study of such chips to administer birth control drugs to women in developing countries.
Langer, a chemical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of eight winners of awards to be given in a black-tie ceremony Thursday night at the Franklin Institute.
Each year, the museum honors a half-dozen standouts in the sciences, along with one in business leadership. Langer, who is getting a Franklin medal in life science, is unusual in that he straddles the two worlds. His MIT lab has given birth to 31 companies, or perhaps 32 (he was not sure during a recent conversation), along with untold hundreds of patents and publications.
While some of the companies are in the start-up phase, others have a firm presence in the clinic. In the 1980s, Langer and colleagues came up with the idea of long-term drug delivery via implants made of dissolvable polymers, which drew a fair amount of skepticism at the time.
But the research eventually led to Gliadel, the first brain-cancer treatment that delivered drugs directly to the tumor site, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1996.
Others used the dissolving polymer concept to develop a product that now has been implanted in millions: coated stents that gradually release medicine to prevent the formation of harmful scar tissue.
In addition to drug delivery, Langer also is prominent in tissue engineering, using scaffolds and other innovations to help repair damaged organs.
Langer, 67, is quick to deflect accolades to the rotating cast of postdoctoral fellows and other researchers in his lab, which he calls an "idea factory."
"I don't want to give myself too much credit," Langer said. "Most of it is my students."
Frederic Bertley, a Franklin Institute senior vice president who oversees the annual awards program, said Langer is the engine behind the factory's success.
"He's been a rock star for decades," Bertley said. "There are a lot of great-ideas guys. He also puts ideas into practice."
Another way Langer stands out is his willingness to help others, said Margaret A. Wheatley, a former Langer postdoctoral fellow who is now a professor of biomedical engineering at Drexel University.
Example: As in many labs, premed undergraduates clamor to line up research positions with Langer each year, hoping the experience will help them gain admission to medical school.
Scientists derive no particular long-term benefit from this kind of short-term undergraduate labor, as it is the postdocs and Ph.D students who really make things happen. But Langer goes out of his way to find spots for everyone he thinks is worthy, Wheatley said.
"You would think someone like that would be totally unapproachable," she said. "He would bend over backward to find a position where they could help."
The company that makes the drug-delivery chips is Microchips Biotech Inc. of Lexington, Mass., which recently formed a partnership with publicly traded Teva Pharmaceutical Industries to explore additional applications.
Langer came up with the implantable chip idea while watching a documentary on computer-chip production. He developed it with MIT colleague Michael Cima, and the two cofounded the company along with John Santini, a graduate student at the time.
The drug doses are contained in dozens of separate wells in each chip, each covered by a metallic lid. The doses are released via electric signal, melting one lid at a time.
"It's kind of like blowing a fuse off," Langer said.
The drug-release signals can be turned on or off by doctor or patient using a remote wireless device, so the course of treatment can be changed.
Langer is still on the company's board, but his heart remains in his university lab, the idea factory.