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Geologic Column
Platinum, Titanium and Lance Armstrong’s Winning Ride
Elisabeth G. Newton

Last July, the entire world cheered as American cyclist Lance Armstrong rode to his sixth victory in the Tour de France. The historic event made for a great opportunity to observe directly the close relationship that exists between mineral resources and contemporary society. In very different ways, two metals — platinum and titanium — were essential to Armstrong’s Tour de France win.

The role platinum played in assuring Armstrong’s success truly supports its traditional designation as a “precious metal.” Eight years ago, a chemotherapy treatment that uses platinum literally saved Armstrong’s life when he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer. The most effective treatment for advanced cancers of the reproductive system, such as Armstrong’s, are drugs known as platinum coordination compounds.

The first so-called platinum drugs were developed in 1964 at the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. These platinum drugs have the ability to prevent cell division, a very important aspect of cancer treatment, because rapid and random cell division is the hallmark of cancer growth. The treatment of testicular cancer with platinum drugs was pioneered in the United States by Dr. Lawrence Einhorn at the University of Indiana Medical Center, where Armstrong received his chemotherapy. There are now about six or so platinum drugs in use, with several more in development. Armstrong’s cancer was treated with one of the first generation of platinum drugs, Carboplatin, the brand name for platinum diammine, introduced in the United States by Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1986.

The actual quantity of platinum consumed per patient per treatment is miniscule and varies according to a patient’s physical condition and the severity of the disease. The annual consumption of platinum as a chemotherapeutic agent is about half a ton, but it differs from other uses of platinum in that it is neither recyclable nor reusable. Given the life-promoting capacity for platinum when used as a chemotherapeutic agent, this annual “waste” of one-half ton of a rare and scarce precious metal may well be considered the mineral’s most important, if nonrecoverable, end-use.

The role the second important metal, titanium, played in Armstrong’s victory is not nearly so complex and involved. In fact, it’s rather straight forward: Armstrong’s custom-built racing bikes are made out of that wonderful very hard, lightweight, durable metal.

The attributes of titanium racing bikes are now well-known, with such high-performance bikes the envy of every racing cyclist wannabe who ever lived. Armstrong, however, also “wears” a titanium plate in his skull to cover the scars of his cancer-related brain surgery of eight years ago. In his 2000 memoir, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Armstrong expresses his enthusiasm for the titanium skull plate, which he especially appreciates because of his past experiences with titanium in his racing bikes.

In contrast to his declared fondness for titanium, the always straight-talking Armstrong declares a real loathing for the platinum content of his life-saving chemotherapy drugs, because of the harsh and very painful side effects associated with platinum-based chemotherapy. Armstrong, however, who currently serves as a spokesman for Bristol-Myers Squibb (the manufacturer of Carboplatin), obviously does appreciate the remarkable properties of platinum.

Most of us hope we will never need to become acquainted with platinum as a chemotherapeutic drug, lifesaving though it may be, and some of us may covet a titanium bike. But all of us can appreciate the real human value of mineral resource applications in our ever developing and complex society. It is important that society’s use of its mineral resources always be about the journey of life and not “just about a bike.”

Newton is a consultant on geology and public policy issues and is a former senior policy advisor for the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.


Armstrong, Lance, 2000, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, 275 pp., Putnam, New York, N.Y.

Bristol-Myers Squibb, 2001, Carboplatin product information, 4 pp.

Cleri, L .B. & Haywood, Regina, 2003(?), Oncology, Pocket guide to chemotherapy, 5th ed., GlaxoSmithKline, pp. 43-46.

Holland, Henry, 2003, Platinum Group Metals, Geotimes, p. 35, September 2003.

Krebs, Hans-B., M.D., Northern Virginia Pelvic Surgery Associates, Annandale, Virginia, 2002, personal communication.

Leaf, Clifton, 2004, "Why we are not winning the war on cancer, and how to win it," Fortune, March 23, pp. 78-96.

Murphy, Austin, 2004, "The joy of six," Sports Illustrated, Aug. 2, pp. 40-46.

International Platinum Association, 2004, "Platinum today,"

Szegedy-Maszak, Marianne & Hobson, Katherine, 2004, "Beating a killer," U.S. News and World Report, Apr. 5, pp. 56-68.

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