Cancer-Fighting Innovators: The Rosenberg Lab

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Celebrating Cisplatin » Cancer-Fighting Innovators: The Rosenberg Lab

The path to creating what’s been dubbed “the penicillin of cancer drugs” was long and arduous, spanning centuries and continents. Literally.

Cisplatin’s story begins in 1844, when Italian chemist Michele Peyrone first synthesized cisplatinum in his lab. Dubbed “Peyrone’s chloride,” the chemical compound was central to the discovery of the cancer-fighting drug cisplatin by Barnett Rosenberg and his colleagues Loretta Van Camp and Thomas Krigas. But in the 19th century, cisplatinum was never tested as an antibacterial or anti-tumor agent. It took more than a century and a new set of scientists to continue the story.

In the early 1960s, Rosenberg was studying the effect of electric fields on the growth of E. coli bacteria at Michigan State University. It appeared the fields generated by platinum electrodes caused bacteria to grow to nearly 300 times their normal size without dividing.

His hypothesis: if platinum could inhibit bacterial cell division, it could also stop tumor cell growth.

But in order to know that he was truly onto something – for cisplatinum to evolve into a cancer-fighting drug – it required Rosenberg to fully grasp what the discovery could mean. It meant pursuing an unexpected outcome – that despite its known toxicity, this compound could stop tumors.

In a 2001 interview, Rosenberg said about 10 people were working in his lab, but two of the researchers would have the biggest role in the discovery of cisplatin – and they share discovery credit for the drug with him.

After nearly two years spent testing the electrical field, and with additional research by then-grad student Thomas Krigas, they discovered it wasn’t electricity, rather cisplatinum – the platinum compound being released by the electrodes – that stopped cell division. It prevented DNA from replicating, confusing the cancer cells and causing them to die.

To dig deeper into this hypothesis, Rosenberg enlisted the help of his colleague Loretta Van Camp, a microbiologist who ran his lab. Van Camp tested the effectiveness of cisplatinum on cancer in mice, and discovered the tumors disappeared after six months of treatment.

It would take another 13 years – until 1978 – for the drug that would be named cisplatin to go through comprehensive clinical trials in humans and earn FDA approval as a cancer treatment.

Originally from New York, Rosenberg came to Michigan State in 1961 when he was appointed an associate professor of biophysics and co-founded the department. He spent 36 years as a biophysics researcher at MSU, studying microbiology – specifically, the behavior of bacteria. He continued to research and develop anti-cancer drugs in his own private lab, the Barros Research Institute, which he established in Holt in 1982 with his share of the proceeds from the drug patent. He continued to teach and research at Michigan State until his retirement in 1997; Rosenberg died in 2009 at age 82.

Van Camp collaborated with Rosenberg on more than a dozen scientific publications before their work culminated in the discovery of cisplatin. Her degree in medical technology from the MSU School of Veterinary Medicine made her the ideal researcher to explore the viability of cisplatinum as a cancer-fighting agent in mice.