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Cisplatin: The Story of MSU's Cancer Drug

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Cisplatin’s discovery as an anti-cancer drug here at Michigan State University. Cisplatin (and its updated form, carboplatin) is known to be the “penicillin of cancer drugs,” because it has been one of the first, most widely-prescribed, and most effective treatment for many cancer diagnoses.

When designing and evaluating new cancer treatments, current-day researchers use the Cisplatin model as a gold standard to compare new medicines. Cisplatin may be best known for its role in helping Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong fight testicular cancer.

Cisplatin interferes with the growth of cancer cells, slowing their advance in the body. It is used to treat many types of cancer, but it is most widely prescribed for testicular, ovarian, bladder, lung, and stomach cancers. Platinum drugs are now used in 40% of all chemotherapy treatments.

Cisplatin’s origins began well before 1965, in 1844, when it was first created by Italian chemist Michele Peyrone. For a long time it was known as Peyrone’s chloride. But the really important event was its fortuitous discovery as a cancer treatment by Barnett Rosenberg, a biophysical chemist at Michigan State University.

At the time, Rosenberg was trying to study the effect of electric fields on bacterial growth. During his experiments, he found bacteria grew 300 times their normal size but never divided, a very unusual result, when he used platinum electrodes to generate the electric fields. It took a while to figure out what was going on, but in the end he discovered the platinum electrodes were corroding in the test solution, producing Cisplatin.

Rosenberg published his remarkable findings in the journal Nature in 1965, and three years later, published another paper showing Cisplatin could cure tumors in mice.

Cisplatin has been widely used as a treatment for cancer since its approval by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1978. And while five other platinum drugs based on the structure of Cisplatin have been developed since, it has never been replaced.

This has completely changed how some cancers are treated. For instance, before Cisplatin’s discovery the cure rate of testicular cancer was just 10%, but when combined with early detection the cure rate is now approaching 100%.

Rosenberg retired from Michigan State University in 1997 and continued research at his private laboratory, the Barros Research Institute in Holt, Michigan. Rosenberg passed away in the summer of 2009, but the royalties from Cisplatin and Carboplatin still provide great benefit to MSU.

All licensing royalties from MSU-owned innovations are transferred to the MSU Foundation, a non-profit corporation designed to support research at MSU. The MSU Foundation currently manages approximately $425M, mostly derived from the Cisplatin and Carboplatin royalties. Cooperation between the MSU Foundation
and the MSU Innovation Center helps create a virtuous cycle of reinvestment in commercializing technologies that serve the greater good. Years after the expiration of the patents, the licensing revenue received from Cisplatin and Carboplatin continue to deliver benefits to the MSU enterprise.