Thomas O’Halloran Appointed as MSU Foundation Professor

April 21, 2021

Thomas O’Halloran’s recent appointment as a Michigan State University Foundation Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics and Chemistry completes a circle that began when he was a graduate student at Columbia University.

That’s when he became aware of pioneering work by MSU biophysicist Barnett Rosenberg, whose research in the 1970s led to the development of two transformative cancer-fighting drugs, cisplatin and carboplatin.

“I cut my teeth studying the chemistry of platinum anticancer drugs,” O’Halloran, PhD, said. “Barney Rosenberg’s development of cisplatin was a central inspiration for my dissertation research. I have friends and family members who are alive because of his discoveries.”

Although Rosenberg died in 2009, his legacy continues saving lives and funding additional research at Michigan State University. More than $300 million in patent royalties from cisplatin and carboplatin have gone into the MSU Foundation to fund research.

His appointment as an MSU Foundation Professor is “a particular honor for me,” said O’Halloran, who transferred to MSU from Northwestern University, where he had been on the faculty since 1986. “I am delighted to become a part of the legacy that Barney’s discoveries have created for Michigan State University and for cancer survivors all over the world.”

An MSU Foundation grant will allow O’Halloran to conduct high-risk, high-reward research into new inorganic compounds that could lead to a treatment for certain types of blood, breast, and brain cancers.

Other parts of his research team focus on metals – such as iron, copper, and zinc – that are essential for human development and health. In collaboration with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, O’Halloran discovered “metallochaperone proteins,” which control how those metals enter and flow through cells.

Many diseases, including certain cancers, can result when those proteins and metals go awry. O’Halloran’s research has helped improve understanding of another inorganic drug now in phase 3 clinical trials for treating a hereditary illness known as Wilson disease in which excess copper in the body can cause severe liver and brain damage.

In 2010, O’Halloran and Teresa K. Woodruff, PhD, MSU’s new provost (and O’Halloran’s wife) discovered that when an egg is fertilized by a sperm, it releases a “zinc spark,” an explosion of the metal that prevents other sperm from entering the egg. Their finding that zinc fluxes also regulate human reproduction was chosen by Discovery Magazine as among the 100 most important discoveries of 2016, as it could help doctors choose the most-viable egg for in vitro fertilization.

At MSU, O’Halloran will direct a new Elemental Health Institute, bringing together chemists, microbiologists, physicists, radiologists, veterinarians, plant biologists, and physician scientists from throughout the university as he develops ultrasensitive methods to understand how the chemistry of essential and toxic elements impacts human, animal, and plant health.

“I’m going to build on some incredible expertise already in place at MSU,” he said. “All my life I’ve liked working in teams – loud, rambunctious teams, and I like training young scientists and thinking about how their fundamental research insights could have implications for society. Given the depth and breadth of the scholars across MSU, it has been easy to start a number of new collaborative studies.

“Every day I see something new, and it’s thrilling.”

Much of the credit, O’Halloran said, goes to Barney Rosenberg for stimulating his interest in the bioinorganic chemistry of cancer.

“I can only hope that Barney’s creativity and accomplishments will rub off on us as we expand the frontiers at the intersections of inorganic chemistry, biology, and medicine,” he said.