EAST LANSING, Mich. — Barnett Rosenberg, a former Michigan State University professor of chemistry whose development of the anti-cancer drug cisplatin saved countless lives, died Aug. 8. He was 82.
A resident of Holt, Mich., Rosenberg was an MSU professor of chemistry when he and colleagues developed the drug, which continues to be one of the most widely used and successful treatments for cancer.
Cisplatin has a cure rate of nearly 100 percent for testicular cancers, and significantly lowers the rates of lung cancers, head and neck cancers, bone cancers and early stage ovarian cancers.
In 1999, three separate studies appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine which found that cisplatin, when combined with radiation treatment, reduced death rates from cervical cancer by up to 50 percent.
The results were so definitive that the National Cancer Institute, for only the fifth time in history, didn’t wait until the findings were published and immediately sent notices to thousands of oncologists around the world urging them to implement the treatment.
At the time, Rosenberg said he was “euphoric” over the life-saving capabilities of cisplatin. However, he also said it was “disturbing” that a discovery he had made more than 25 years earlier remained the gold standard for cancer treatment.
“For years I’ve been saying this is the first platinum-based drug we discovered,” he said. “It can’t possibly be the best one. It’s disappointing that the scientific community has not been able to find better ones.”
On Aug. 6 of this year, just two days before Rosenberg’s death, Great Britain’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence published an article that said cisplatin, when combined with a chemotherapy known as Alitma, was especially effective in fighting certain types of lung cancer.
“With the passing of Barnett Rosenberg, Michigan State University and the worlds of science and health have lost a huge figure,” said MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. “The scientific advancements of Dr. Rosenberg have saved thousands of lives, and we will forever be grateful. In addition, the royalties from the development of the drug cisplatin also build for the future as they help fund an endowed chair in neuroscience and help fund the training of tomorrow’s physicists, chemists and other researchers and teachers.
“The name Barney Rosenberg will forever represent the impact a great research university with leading faculty can have on the lives of people throughout the world. His work was not only historic at MSU; it was globally transformative in the chemotherapy for several forms of cancer.”
It was in the early 1970s that Rosenberg and colleagues Loretta Van Camp and Thomas Krigas happened upon the cancer-fighting properties of platinum. While doing some experiments designed to determine if electromagnetic energy could stop cell growth, they found that the platinum from the electrodes, when combined with chloride and ammonium, had a dramatic effect on cells.
In 1978 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of this solution, eventually named cisplatin, for use in humans to fight cancer.
The MSU Foundation, which received royalties from the cisplatin discovery, helped fund the Barnett Rosenberg Chair in Neuroscience. In 2001 S. Marc Breedlove, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the development of the central nervous system, was appointed to the position.
Originally from New York City, Rosenberg began his MSU career in 1961 when he was appointed an associate professor of biophysics. He retired in 1997. He also had a private laboratory, the Barros Research Institute, located south of East Lansing in Holt.
After earning a bachelor of science in physics from Brooklyn College in 1948, he received master’s and doctorate degrees, also in physics, from New York University. Before coming to MSU he was a research scientist at NYU (1959-61) and a senior research scientist at Westinghouse Electric Corp. (1956-58).
Rosenberg was a veteran of World War II. In 1979 he was named Michiganian of the year in 1979 by The Detroit News.
He is survived by his wife, Ritta, and two children.
The family is not planning services.
Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.