A Cancer on ASU

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

Yet abrasiveness is not uncommon in a university setting. As Robert Barnhill, a former vice president for research at ASU, put it, "It's needed to have a strong personality to succeed in university research."

And to watch his laboratory and institute decimated has been the ultimate humiliation for a researcher in the twilight of his career. Though at this point it's clear that the CRI is gone, Pettit refuses to give it up. He's still pushing back as best he can, hoping one day to be restored to his former glory.

When Pettit started out as a chemist, antibiotics were the "in" drug to research. Now genomics research has taken over the science world. But this guy only ever wanted to find a drug that would cure cancer.

The Cancer Research Institute in its heyday.
courtesy of Bob Pettit
The Cancer Research Institute in its heyday.
A lab in the Cancer Research Institute after it was shut down and gutted.
courtesy of Bob Pettit
A lab in the Cancer Research Institute after it was shut down and gutted.

"I have a tremendous sense of sadness for cancer victims, for all the world-class chemists and biologists who worked with me, and a tremendous sadness to see the building being partially destroyed and empty," he says. "I have a great sadness, too, for our university. It took me over 30 years to get the labs built the way I wanted."

It took less than a year to bring them down.

Pettit has been obsessed with organic chemistry, and cancer, since he was a child growing up in Long Shore, New Jersey. He remembers the first time he saw a chemistry set. He was 10. A friend of his got one from his uncle, and Pettit was so in awe he mowed every lawn in the neighborhood until he could afford his own. Years later, his early chemistry sets would go up on display in the lobby of the Cancer Research Institute — a nod to his single-mindedness when it comes to science and, maybe, a slight massage for his ego.

As a young teen, Pettit apprenticed in a pharmacy and later worked as an assistant to a pathologist at the local hospital. It was there his interest in cancer really grew.

"I began to see what cancer was all about by dissecting cancer patients. I thought, 'This is perfectly horrible,'" he says. "I didn't have a good name for it when I was 15, but to me it didn't look right."

Pettit grew up about a mile from the ocean. When he wasn't slicing up cancer victims at the morgue, he was down at the beach, where he collected and observed sea creatures in the tide pools. He noticed none of them ever appeared sick, and certainly none of them had the signs of cancer he was so accustomed to seeing at work. He wondered if there was something occurring in these invertebrates that kept them healthy.

Though the pathologist he worked with urged him to go to medical school, Pettit opted against it.

"I decided I was not going to do that, because I thought the answer might really lie in chemistry," he says.

At that time, there were no cancer drugs, not officially, anyway. Pettit started college in 1948, the year before the FDA approved the first drug used to treat cancer. Many of his chemist colleagues thought he was crazy for wanting to work on fighting cancer when there were more lucrative areas to explore as a chemist.

Pettit got his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Washington State University and went on to get both his master's and his doctorate degrees from Detroit's Wayne State University. He later moved to the University of Maine, where he established his first research group and began collaborating with the National Cancer Institute, then in the early stages of anti-cancer drug development.

When Pettit came to ASU from the University of Maine in 1965, he moved into a small laboratory facility in the chemistry department — ironically, it's the same 1,000-square-foot lab he's been shoved back into years later.

At the time, ASU was finding its identity as a university, having started out as a teachers' college.

Pettit was attracted to ASU because of the allure of expanded lab space. At the University of Maine, he didn't have much room. Though he initially moved into a small lab, ASU promised him a substantial amount of space in the newly expanded chemistry department. Not only that, he says he was attracted to the chance of working with LeRoy Eyring, the chair of the chemistry department and another research pioneer. (Eyring recently died.)

Pettit came to ASU for the first time to give a lecture while passing through Arizona on his way to Stanford, where he was a visiting professor for one semester.

"Dr. Eyring asked me to give a lecture on the way," he says. "When I did, it turned out to be a tender trap."

Since his time in Maine, Pettit had entertained the thought of creating a research institution where he could fully explore his ideas about marine organisms and cancer. He began to solicit funding in 1965, and that same year was able to launch his first exploratory marine expedition.

By 1973, Pettit had gathered around him the first research team for what was then called the Cancer Research Laboratory. Two years later, the group was renamed the Cancer Research Institute.

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My Voice Nation Help

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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