Milton Roy, a chemical engineer, developed the first portable kidney dialysis machine in 1964.

Innovators in Biomedicine | Pioneers in a growing field

A potentially promising strategy for the regeneration of damaged nerves is being investigated with the help of chemical engineers. Photo by Gary Meek. Courtesy Georgia Tech.

Since the 1950s an increasing number of chemical engineers have made significant contributions to the emerging specialty of biomedicine. The following list provides examples of a few of the many accomplished chemical engineers who have worked to help advance biomedical pursuits.

Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau

As a young chemical engineer during World War II, Margaret Rousseau worked on two historically important projects. She helped create processes for producing high-octane gasoline, and she also played an important role in designing early commercial-scale plants for making penicillin, the first widely used antibiotic drug.

Rousseau earned the distinction of being the first woman ever to receive a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), having obtained her B.S. from Rice University. She became the first female member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and later became the first woman to receive the Founders Award, the highest award presented by AIChE.

Robert Langer

The development of specialized plastics suitable for highly demanding biomedical applications has been one of Robert Langer’s primary areas of expertise. Among his many pioneering breakthroughs are the development of ingenious structural scaffolds made from biocompatible materials, which enable tissue growth in biomedical applications.

A trailblazer in biomaterials, Langer demonstrated that proteins embedded in a polymer can be gradually passed through skin. He then discovered that dissolvable plastic wafers can release chemotherapy drugs in excised brain tumors. On the basis of Langer’s research, scientists were able to show that dissolvable microcapsules can be used to treat prostate, ovarian, and spinal tumors. More recently his work has focused on the development of remotely controlled microchips able to control drug delivery more precisely in the human body.

Langer holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from MIT, where he is one of 13 Institute Professors. During his prolific career he has authored more than 940 research papers and 13 books, with over 800 invited lectures, 560 patents issued or pending, and more than 150 awards to his credit, including the prestigious National Medal of Technology.

Peter Abbrecht

Holding both a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and an M.D. from the University of Michigan, Peter Abbrecht has been able to use chemical-engineering theory and analysis to improve various medical therapies. His work was invaluable in the optimization of kidney dialysis and anticoagulant therapies. Abbrecht received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University.

At the University of Michigan, Abbrecht started one of the first biomedical-engineering departments in the country. Later he moved to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. There he pursued research in the fields of renal and pulmonary physiology. Following his retirement he joined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity as a medical expert, overseeing investigations of misconduct in biomedical and clinical trials research.

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison is an astronaut who holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from Stanford University and an M.D. from Cornell University Medical College. Prior to joining the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jemison worked as a physician for a Los Angeles medical group.

Her flight aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, which went into orbit on 12 September 1992, earned Jemison the distinction of being the first African American woman to travel in outer space. During her mission she conducted experiments in life sciences, material sciences, and bone-cell research.