A Cancer on ASU

Could Bob Pettit have cured cancer in his lifetime? We might never know, thanks to nasty university politics

When Arizona State University students filed back into the classroom this week, Bob Pettit found himself someplace he hasn't been for a very long time: an introductory chemistry lab.

Pettit is one of the top organic chemists in the world, and his cancer research is recognized as some of the most groundbreaking ever. He holds 65 patents at ASU on anti-cancer compounds, and the center he founded on campus — the Cancer Research Institute — is known as the pioneer in developing anti-cancer drugs derived from marine compounds.

He has published 14 books and 728 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. He's trained hundreds of chemists, overseen countless post-doctoral researchers, and brought millions of dollars to the university in the form of licensing revenue from patents on his cancer drugs.

Bob Pettit
Martha Strachan
Bob Pettit
The Biodesign Institute is part of a new wave of research at ASU.
Martha Strachan
The Biodesign Institute is part of a new wave of research at ASU.

In his 40 years at ASU, Pettit put the university's chemistry department on the map.

But now this veteran chemist, dubbed a "national treasure" by the National Cancer Institute, is teaching an elementary undergraduate class — an incredible humiliation for a man of his stature.

Pettit has been stripped of his leadership titles, and his Cancer Research Institute has been effectively dismantled, with his research grinding almost to a halt. He's back in the small lab he worked in when he first came to ASU in 1965. He's probably lucky to still have his tenured regent's professor position.

His research notebooks — 25 filing cabinets full — are missing. Even worse, thousands of marine organisms, from which he's derived the compounds used in his anti-cancer drugs, are locked in a basement he can't access. This research might have saved lives, though Pettit will possibly never know what he could have done with it. At 77, he's not exactly young (though he can still jog six miles at a stretch), and even if he manages to win the lawsuit he's got pending against ASU and start over someday with a new center, without his specimens, compounds and research notebooks, Bob Pettit is lost.

It is clear to many that ASU is making an example of him. Showing other professors what can happen when you challenge university policy.

After years of complaining about, and fighting, scientific policies and patent/licensing rules at the university — even going so far as to file a whistle-blower's complaint in the late '90s — Pettit has met his match in the university's current administration.

Go up against ASU brass these days, and chances are you'll be staring down Michael Crow, the university's charismatic, controversial president. There's a vigorous debate on campus, particularly among some university scientists, about whether Crow has ASU's best interest in mind with his plan for a New American University.

Old-schoolers worry the savvy president is running the place more like a corporation than a university. People point to Bob Pettit as an example of that, although it's unclear just how involved Crow has been in the day-to-day decision-making in Pettit's case. It's evident from the documents reviewed for this story that he at least knew about it.

New Times has examined hundreds of documents, memos, scientific studies and e-mails (about 3,000 pages) pertaining to Pettit's research and legal case. More than a dozen scientists and other experts nationwide verified the value of his research — even ASU officials agree there — and former ASU administrators vouched for his integrity as a professor. Because Pettit is suing the university, no current administrators would talk. George Poste, the director of the university's Biodesign Institute and the man responsible for firing Pettit's staff and dismantling his research center, declined to discuss either Pettit or cancer research at ASU. President Michael Crow and former university provost Milton Glick also refused to comment.

To say that Pettit was more forthcoming is an understatement. Once he gets going, the professor loves to talk — it's impossible to spend less than an hour with him at a time. New Times spent close to 30 hours with Pettit reviewing his case and discussing his research. As he discusses his ordeal — usually over ice cream (one of his few vices) — he tries to joke about it, but his eyes reveal the toll the past few years have taken. He's tired.

And worse, he's been unable to find a lawyer to take his case. Pettit's been through three firms so far. Denis Wilenchik, a Phoenix attorney who represented Pettit for eight months in 2006, says he wishes he had the resources to see the case through, but because Pettit was paying him hourly, and because ASU has a much larger legal budget, it just became impossible.

"I do believe he has a case. The problem is no one is willing to carry on years and years of tough, expensive litigation," Wilenchik says. "These guys are going to file every motion they can. That's the game — to wear him down. It's a huge case, going up against some big firms that play the game loading you up with as much crap as they can."

And Wilenchik doesn't say it, but Pettit can likely be a tough client at times. Though the professor looks like a caricature of the genial, soft-spoken scientist, complete with thick-rimmed black glasses, he does have a reputation around the university for being "difficult" — and that's the kindest word people used when describing him. This is a man who is used to getting what he wants, and get out of the way when he doesn't.

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I worked for GRP for a number of years as an ASU undergraduate and always found him to be extremely dedicated to careful and well controlled scientific research. The idea that natural products organic chemistry is somehow outdated as a possible source of cancer therapeutics reminds me of a few comments about ASU's new research efforts that came up at a recent NSF panel meeting, discussing ASU's new "Bioscienterrific Institute of NanoFictive InterConnections". Interdisciplinary "systems" work is sexy, but frankly even the agencies that fund the work are wondering if they are being had. The problem isn't that GRP's approach is timeconsuming and difficult..it was. The problem is are the proposed alternatives even science? Systems research has been consuming huge resources for almost fifteen years and frankly to date (although nobody really seems to doing research on quality of research vs. dollars invested) very modest gains have been seen, despite some flashy publications. I applaud GRP for his principled fight against both an autocratic university administration and an approach to science that may frankly add up to a big nothing. Good luck to ASU, my advice is sell the snake oil slowly, the AZ mooks might figure out that all their tax dollars aren't buying much but pretty (leaky, poorly built) research buildings.

Lynn Pritchett
Lynn Pritchett

Protocol is tedious, frustrating, and extremely time consuming. However, as Pettit's story painfully tells, it is a permanent tatoo on on the chest of every business, education, political, and research institution today. Protocol often seems an inconsequential waste of paper and energy, and when mistakes are made along the way, it magnifies the human impact ten-fold. The line crossed here, between making protocol error and choosing to bypass required procedures and/or informing all involved parties, is all too obvious. Question remain, however: "What strides in life-saving possibilities are now lost? Indeed, "What is the true price of progress?" Furthermore, "Did firing Pettit's staff, changing the institute's name, and demoting Pettit create a more focused, more efficient, more innovative and productive research environment?" Ulitimately, "Can those who made these decisions look into the eyes of a child dying of cancer, and truthfully say,"I'm sorry."

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