MSUToday
Published: March 4, 2020

Loretta VanCamp: Spartan, lab supervisor, lifesaver

By: Stefanie Pohl Communications and Brand StrategyContact(s): Caroline Brooks Communications and Brand Strategy office: 517-432-0920 brooks78@msu.edu

The foundation for one of the most successful modern treatments of cancer was first discovered in a Michigan State University lab in the mid-1960s. As lab supervisor, MSU microbiologist and researcher Loretta VanCamp played a critical role in the breakthrough development of the world’s leading anti-cancer drugs cisplatin and carboplatin alongside MSU biophysicist Barnett Rosenberg and then-graduate student Thomas Krigas.

VanCamp, an MSU alumna who passed away in 2006 at 80 years old, was driven by the desire to help others when she chose her career path.

“I came here because Michigan State was one of the best med tech schools in the country,” VanCamp said. “I always wanted to do something to help people. I chose med tech when they told me that was as close to becoming a doctor as I could without going through the hassle of a woman trying to become a doctor in a man's world.” 

VanCamp joined Rosenberg’s team as a microbiologist, working as head of the lab when she, Rosenberg and Krigas happened upon the cancer-fighting properties of platinum in 1965. While doing 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. Their discovery found that the chemical compound cisplatinum interferes with the growth of cancer cells, slowing their advance in the body.

Cisplatin treatment, approved by the FDA in 1978, has saved countless lives in the decades since. It is considered the “penicillin of cancer drugs” as one of the first, most widely prescribed and effective treatments for many cancer diagnoses, including testicular, ovarian, bladder, lung and stomach cancers. Through royalties and licensing revenue benefitting the MSU Foundation, cisplatin and carboplatin continue to support the next generation of Spartans in the field of cancer research.

“Loretta VanCamp led a team of researchers in Barney Rosenberg’s lab that discovered the anti-cancer drug cisplatin through serendipity, creativity and a tremendous amount of hard work,” said Jetze Tepe, associate professor of chemistry. “She represents a true role model for anyone who strives to make an impact on today’s society through science.” 

VanCamp’s contribution to the sciences endures in the 21st century with the VanCamp Incubator, a 22,000 square foot multi-tenant facility that celebrated its grand opening on Sept. 12, 2019.

“There was a need for wet lab spaces in the Greater Lansing region, so we dedicated this space to researchers and entrepreneurs,” said Gabriela Allum, project manager for the University Corporate Research Park. “We knew immediately that the incubator should be in honor of Loretta VanCamp because of her impact on cisplatin and her overall influence on women in STEM.”

The VanCamp Incubator features nine wet labs and 42 office spaces, available for companies to use resources and services to grow their businesses.