Long Term Impact of Innovation at MSU: a Virtuous Cycle

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Long Term Impact of Innovation at MSU: a Virtuous Cycle

Cisplatin and carboplatin’s impact goes far beyond treating millions of cancer patients and prolonging lives.

It’s also fueling the discovery of new drugs, enabling cutting-edge agricultural research and providing venture capital to budding entrepreneurs.

Because cisplatin and carboplatin were discovered at Michigan State University, the majority of the royalty income from their sales while under patent returned to the university and was also used to bolster the MSU Foundation. Established in 1973, the MSU Foundation supports research, invention and entrepreneurship on campus and beyond.

The royalties for cisplatin and carboplatin surpassed all expectations and helped the foundation grow rapidly, enhancing further work by university researchers. In fact, in 2017, it awarded about $9.5 million in grants to initiate and expand promising research, support commercialization activities at MSU Technologies and encourage economic growth throughout Michigan.

Cisplatin, widely considered “the penicillin of cancer treatments,” was discovered by Dr. Barnett Rosenberg, Loretta Van Camp and Thomas Krigas on MSU’s campus.

Spartan Innovations, created as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the MSU Foundation, focuses on turning ideas, technologies and creative activities into Michigan businesses. The 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.

“There is a well-known gap between research funded at a university and its real-world application,” said David Washburn, executive director of the MSU Foundation and president of Spartan Innovations. “It’s commonly referred to as the ‘valley of death,’ because it is difficult to garner the support needed to bring a product to market.”

A researcher may have received a $3 million grant, and over three years she discovers something. Often by then, the grant term – and the money – has run out.

“We help her pick up the baton and run with it after basic research is mostly done, but we help them get it closer to what the market needs,” Washburn said. “That’s the value-add of the foundation to the university, the benefit of cisplatin and carboplatin giving us the resources to support this work.

“Many universities don’t have the resources to do this.”

Unrestricted dollars for research are essential to discovering – and developing – the next big thing.

“Rosenberg always said if former MSU President John Hannah hadn’t given him the freedom to set up the biophysics department to focus on research rather than teaching, he wouldn’t have had the time and opportunity to take on the independent studies that led to the discovery of cisplatin,” said Jim Hoeschele, who later worked with the team on the discovery of carboplatin, an updated, less-toxic form of cisplatin.

This virtuous cycle of unrestricted funding gives current researchers the flexibility to try new things, take unexpected paths and follow experiments to unanticipated conclusions, sometimes leading to powerful discoveries.

“The benefit of that independence is tremendous,” Hoeschele said. “And now the independence Barney had is helping new researchers at MSU do the same thing.”

In honor of the Rosenberg Lab’s groundbreaking work on cisplatin and carboplatin, the Rosenberg Chair in Neuroscience was established, now held by Marc Breedlove, as was the Rosenberg Professorship in Plant Biology, held by Robert L. Last. The prestigious Rosenberg Fellowship for young graduate students provides them with a stipend, health insurance, and tuition waiver for an entire year.

More recently, the MSU Foundation launched the Professorship Program, an endowed-chair program that helps recruit and retain faculty members to the university.

“It’s prestigious for a faculty member to be a named professor,” Washburn said. “We have more than 30 MSU Foundation Professors on campus now. They receive annual stipends they can use to hire grad students, buy equipment, and further support their research.”

Years after the expiration of the patents, the licensing revenue from cisplatin and carboplatin continues to deliver benefits to the MSU enterprise.