Discovering the gold standard of cancer drugs

  • Aug 3, 2018
  • Cisplatin Celebration, chemistry, research
  • Homepage Hero, Alumni, Faculty & Staff, Research, Students, Chemistry, College of Natural Science

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the anti-cancer drug’s approval by the Food and Drug Administration, an event significant to cancer patients and the medical community, but also to Michigan State University’s research legacy.

Image of Rosenberg and VanCamp
Barnett Rosenberg and Loretta Van Camp with photographs of normal E. Coli bacteria (left) and E. coli bacteria that have been treated with platinum (right).

It was in the mid-to-late 1960s that Michigan State University biophysicist Barnett Rosenberg and colleagues, Loretta Van Camp and Thomas Krigas, discovered the cancer-fighting properties of platinum.

While doing experiments designed to determine if electromagnetic energy could interfere with cell division in E. coli bacteria, they observed that cell division was inhibited but not cell growth, giving rise to long filamentous forms of the bacteria.

The cause of this key observation was pursued for five years, eventually leading to the discovery of cisplatin as potent agent capable of interfering with the growth of selected cancer cells and slowing their advance in the body.

The chemical compound—which prevents the DNA in cancer cells from replicating, confusing them and causing them to die—is used to treat many types of cancer, but is most widely prescribed for testicular, ovarian, bladder, lung and stomach cancers. With a cure rate north of 90 percent for testicular cancer, cisplatin has become the gold standard to which many new cancer medicines are compared.

Four decades later, cisplatin also is making new discoveries possible every day at MSU.

To read more about the discovery, inventors, patient survivors and researchers, visit

Banner image: The discovery, patenting and FDA approval of cisplatin—often called the “penicillin of cancer drugs”—was a 13-year process, an unusually brief period of time in the research world. In addition to saving countless lives, royalties earned from sales of cisplatin and its derivative, carboplatin, fuel the work of and investments by the MSU Foundation. Graphic courtesy of Deon Foster, MSU Communications and Brand Strategy.

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