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  • Writer's picturePhilly Morris MBE

The discovery of Cisplatin

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

The fight against cancer, medical science has made significant strides in the development of effective treatments. One such breakthrough came with the discovery of cisplatin, a revolutionary chemotherapy drug that has saved countless lives and transformed cancer treatment. In this blog post, we will delve into the fascinating history of cisplatin and explore how this powerful chemotherapy agent was created, changing the landscape of cancer therapy forever.

The Discovery of Cisplatin: Cisplatin was first discovered in the early 1960s by accident. While researching the potential anticancer properties of electric fields on bacteria, Dr. Barnett Rosenberg, a biochemist at Michigan State University, observed an unusual phenomenon. He noticed that certain platinum electrodes inhibited bacterial cell division when an electric current passed through them. This piqued Dr. Rosenberg's interest and led him to explore the possibility of using platinum compounds as a cancer treatment.

The Journey to Clinical Trials: After the serendipitous discovery of cisplatin's potential anticancer effects, further research ensued to understand its mechanism of action and safety for human use. Dr. Rosenberg collaborated with Dr. Loretta Van Camp, an oncology specialist, to investigate cisplatin's effects on cancer cells in animal models. Their findings were promising, demonstrating that cisplatin could effectively inhibit tumour growth in various experimental settings.

These compelling results prompted the initiation of clinical trials in the late 1960s and early 1970s to evaluate the drug's effectiveness and safety in human cancer patients. The clinical trials primarily focused on treating testicular cancer, which was known to be resistant to conventional treatments at the time.

Clinical Success and FDA Approval: The clinical trials with cisplatin yielded remarkable outcomes, showcasing substantial response rates in patients with testicular cancer, even in those cases that were previously considered untreatable. The drug's ability to induce remission and improve survival rates was groundbreaking.

In 1978, based on the positive clinical trial data, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved cisplatin for the treatment of testicular and ovarian cancer. This marked a pivotal moment in the history of cancer therapy, as cisplatin became the first platinum-based chemotherapy drug to be approved for medical use.

Mechanism of Action: Cisplatin works by forming crosslinks between DNA strands in rapidly dividing cancer cells, effectively preventing them from replicating and ultimately leading to cell death. Its specificity for cancer cells, while sparing healthy cells to some extent, made it a game-changer in cancer treatment.

Continued Research and Evolving Uses: Over the years, researchers have continued to study cisplatin and its derivatives, leading to the development of various platinum-based chemotherapy drugs. These innovations have expanded the application of platinum-based therapies to treat different types of cancer, including lung, bladder, head and neck, and many other cancers.

The discovery of cisplatin stands as a testament to the remarkable achievements of medical science. From a chance observation in a laboratory to becoming a cornerstone in cancer treatment, cisplatin has undoubtedly made a significant impact on countless lives. As researchers continue to explore novel therapies and combination treatments, the legacy of cisplatin will persist, driving us toward a future where cancer may one day be conquered.


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