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SAN ANTONIO - A record crowd of nearly 550 members and supporters of San Antonio's biomedical sector paid tribute September 18 to Robert Langer, Sc.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recipient of BioMed SA's 2013 Julio Palmaz Award for Innovation in Healthcare and the Biosciences.
The award, named after Palmaz Stent inventor Julio Palmaz, MD of the UT Health Science Center San Antonio, honors individuals who have made significant contributions to advance the healthcare and bioscience fields.
Dr. Palmaz was on hand September 18 to help present the 8th annual award to Dr. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT. Both men were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006, and Dr. Langer said he was honored to receive the BioMed SA award in Dr. Palmaz’s name.
“I still remember Julio’s speech (from 2006) – a wonderful, humble speech about his career and his invention, one of the greatest of all time, which changed cardiology and improved the health of millions of people and created an entire set of industries,” Dr. Langer told the San Antonio audience. “So when I got the call to win an award in his name, it was a great honor.”
Palmaz Committee Chair Bruce Leslie, Ph.D., Chancellor of the Alamo Colleges, described Dr. Langer as the most cited engineer in the world and one of the most prolific medical inventors in history. “He has played a pioneering role in advancing multiple technologies, working at the intersection of academic research and the commercial market with transformational results.”
In addition to his many career accomplishments, Leslie said the selection committee was impressed with Dr. Langer’s active mentorship of numerous students and aspiring engineers. “In fact, the Langer Lab is one of the largest at MIT with more than 100 graduate and post-doctoral students at any given time.”
Dr. Leslie went on to read a letter of congratulations from San Antonio Congressman Lamar Smith, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Technology and Space. “Applying your amazing ingenuity and diligence to biomedical challenges fosters education and research, creates jobs and new medical products, and to those for whom the right treatment or disease cure has been elusive it brings hope. I join our entire San Antonio community in thanking you for the difference your innovations have made in decades past and will make in those to come,” the letter concluded.
Reflecting on his lifetime of achievements, Dr. Langer explained how he first got into the biomedical field after graduating from the chemical engineering program at MIT and deciding he wanted to use his education to help people. His first position was working with Dr. Judah Folkman of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School to stop tumor growth by restricting the flow of blood from surrounding blood vessels (angiogenesis). The work they pioneered in the 1970s took almost three decades to gain acceptance, but eventually became recognized as a fourth modality for treating cancer in addition to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
Langer’s early work with polymers led him to design microspheres for delivering large molecule drugs that couldn’t be successfully delivered by other methods and targeting drugs to specific sites within the body via nanotechnology.
His pioneering work in biomaterials then led Dr. Langer to what he called “the most powerful new idea of all” – the possibility of using cell therapies to grow new bodily organs. “This whole area of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine in some ways is probably the most speculative of all, but one with unbelievable potential,” he said. Dr. Langer said he feels privileged to be working with San Antonio startup company, StemBioSys, which is developing an extracellular matrix platform to expand the use of mesencyhmal stem cells from umbilical cord blood to repair specific body tissues.
“My hope is that this work … will relieve suffering and prolong life for people all over the world,” Langer said.
Earlier in the program, StemBioSys CEO Peter Savas, a fellow Bostonian and Langer collaborator, explained how he was introduced to the company’s technology by San Antonian Gary Frashier and why he subsequently decided to move to San Antonio himself to lead the commercialization effort after realizing the potential of the city’s biomedical sector.
Competition for our Biomedical Future
BioMed SA Chair Ken Trevett, who emceed the dinner, said that while San Antonio’s biomedical sector includes world-class institutions and employs 1 of 6 people in San Antonio’s workforce with an annual economic impact exceeding $29 billion, the community faces intense competition from cities both inside and outside Texas.
“We cannot take our present achievements and future success for granted,” said Trevett. “We must further invest in ourselves, our infrastructure, our marketing efforts. We must call out to the world at large that San Antonio is not only a leader, but the leader, in many facets of disease management and the search for preventatives and cures. Let us redouble our efforts to tell our story locally, regionally, and nationally. And let us not take the successes of the past as harbingers of the future, but as incentives to do even more.”
World Stem Cell Summit
The Palmaz Dinner began with “breaking news” of San Antonio’s selection to host the World Stem Cell Summit in 2014. The announcement was made by Executive Director Bernard Siegel of the Genetics Policy Institute, based in Palm Beach, Florida, and by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
Other distinguished guests at the dinner included San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley, BioMed SA’s Founding Chair Henry Cisneros, and top leaders of the San Antonio Military Health System, Maj. Gen. Jimmie Keenan, Director, and Maj. Gen. Byron Hepburn, Assistant Director.
In addition to Dr. Palmaz and his wife, Amalia, the audience included two other previous Palmaz Award winners, 2012 recipient Dr. Larry Miller of Vidacare Corporation and 2010 recipient Dr. Mauli Agrawal of the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Special recognition was given to members of BioMed SA's robotics team, The Randomists, this year’s regional FIRST Lego League champions, as well as high school participants in the Health Science Center's Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy.