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Monday, 4 August 2008

Reflections on the Finland Millennium Technology Prize 2008

In June Richard Scrase was one of the two ABSW members who travelled to Helsinki as guests of the Millennium Prize Foundation.

The trip to Finland gave me three opportunities that I would recommend to colleagues. Firstly, learning about four disparate technologies was an excellent intellectual excursion. Secondly, seeing how the Finnish Millennium Prize Foundation conducted themselves and their award gave an insight into Finnish culture. In what other country would the president curtail their role to smiling and shaking hands and not make a speech at an international award ceremony ? Thirdly, there was the delight of spending time with a marvellous array of over twenty science journalists - a group of people who really know how to enjoy themselves!

The Millennium award is intending to establish itself as the technological equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The specific purpose of the prize is to 'pay tribute to life-enhancing technological innovation.' This year the short-list threw up four very different technologies, DNA fingerprinting, drug-delivering biomaterials, the Viterbi algorithm and erbium-doped fibre amplifiers.

The Millennium Prize Foundation has a distinguished international panel to decide between the nominees or Laureates for the first prize. We journalists took the similarly democratic procedure of betting on the outcome. Both procedures came up with the same conclusion - that of Dr.Robert Langer, MIT, for his work on drug-delivering biomaterials.

Part of the pleasure of the Millennium Prize process was that prior to the award ceremony itself all Laureates gave public lectures outlining their work. If you had not fully grasped the scope of the technology beforehand, here was a second chance. Better still, you heard an account that gave some biography and history of science. You can watch Dr. Langers final lecture online.

So should Dr.Langer have won the prize and how can you really compare such disparate technologies? Well the point of the prize is to award technological innovation that significantly improves the quality of human life today and in the future and Langer has certainly done that.

Dr.Langer started life in chemical engineering but moved into medicine at the time that oncology was becoming aware of the role of specific molecules in blood vessel formation (angiogenisis) in tumour growth.

His task was first to isolate substances that inhibit angiogenisis. His key idea was to consider how these substances - proteins that would not survive injection - could be delivered to the tumour. His answer was to create drug-loaded biodegradable microparticles made from polymers that would first contain and then release the drug. By modifying the polymer structure Dr.Langer was able to engineer the release period from a few hours up to several years, while continuing to protect the encapsulated pharmaceutical.

These microparticles are now used in the treatment of heart disease, mental illness and cancer. The biodegradable nature of the polymers led on to their use, and the use of other polymers, as scaffolds for artificial tissue growth. You might remember seeing the picture of an ear on a mouses back? This was one product from Dr.Langers laboratory. Now these materials are being integrated into micro-electronic drug delivery systems that can be remote controlled to release the drugs into the body.

So did Dr.Langer deserve the first prize? The more than a million people who have benefited from treatment probably think so. But if I had been on the awarding committee I think its possible my vote would have gone for the erbium-doped fibre amplifier (EDFA).

I was an exchange student in the US in the 1970's. My Christmas present from my host family was a three minute phone call home - at a cost in todays terms of around $300. Today the cost is a few pence, thanks in part to the EDFA.

Before getting the chance to go to Finland I'd never heard of this device but the erbium-doped fibre amplifier enables information transmission through optical fibres by the laser powered 'noiseless' amplification of light and without it we would have no internet and severely limited telecommunications. Now there is an amplifier inserted every 100km or so into every optical fibre cable.

So has the internet and cheap telecommunication improved the quality of human life? More than improved drug-delivery systems? Hard choices. But not choices considered by the UK media.

Two out of the six laureates were British but the coverage of the prize in the UK was very limited. No mention in the Guardian, Times, FT, or HTES. Nothing in New Scientist even. The only proper story in the UK mainstream media was online in BBC News/technology and an interview with Dr.Langer written for the Engineer by, Bernice Baker - the other ABSW person in Helsinki.

So, despite laying everything on that the media could have wanted - except perhaps telling us who had won a little earlier - the Millennium Prize Foundation has yet to achieve Nobel status for the Technology Prize - in the UK at least. I take responsibility for not contacting all of the above named papers before flying out. The challenge to the next ABSW rep. who enjoys the Finnish Millennium Prize Foundation hospitality (and they were very hospitable!) is to find an approach that does make it into the press.

Richard Scrase