A Cancer on ASU

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

Pettit designed the center, which sits on the east end of campus near the science library and the math building, specifically for cancer research. Unlike a lot of older buildings at ASU, everything about the center feels up to date. Even now, with its halls empty and smeared with grime, you get a distinctly scientific feel when you enter. Everything was engineered for the exact kind of research Pettit does. Even the plants outside are there for a reason. Near the entrance, he planted an African bush willow — the source for combretastatin, one of his most successful drugs.

In the 1960s, ASU was very much in transition, especially in the sciences. In the '70s, while Pettit was building his group, ASU was trying to achieve research university status, which it did not get until the '80s.

Robert Barnhill, the former vice president for research at the university (he left in 1997 for a job at his alma mater, Kansas University), confirms that Pettit was at the forefront of scientific research at ASU, doing federally funded research before most other scientists there.

Jack Knight worked as assistant director for chemistry at the Cancer Research Institute.
Martha Strachan
Jack Knight worked as assistant director for chemistry at the Cancer Research Institute.
George Poste, director of ASU's Biodesign Institute.
courtesy of ASU media relations
George Poste, director of ASU's Biodesign Institute.

"Pettit and some other people were the pioneers of doing solid research," Barnhill says. "The university wasn't engaged in that nearly so much. Research was formalized in the '80s. That meant, in a sense, the university was joining what Pettit was already doing."

In other words, the fact that Pettit was already a recognized, and well-published, researcher at a time when ASU was taking baby steps to prove itself worthy of a research mission gave him an edge. He was on top.

In addition to building the CRI, Pettit also helped write the university's patent policy in the '80s. When he first came to ASU, there was no policy in place.

That patent policy made it possible for both the university and its individual professors and researchers to make a lot of money. Since 1989, the Cancer Research Institute has generated about $11 million. Of that, one-third went to ASU. In 2002, the group was responsible for almost 90 percent of the university's licensing income.

The large white building that once housed Pettit's Cancer Research Institute is now essentially deserted. There's no security, so it's not hard to slip in and out unnoticed. It's worth it just to see the specimens Pettit's group has gathered over the years.

The dimly lighted basement of the CRI building is a treasure trove of sea creatures dug up from the Indian and Arctic oceans. It is packed with shelf after shelf of marine specimens — starfish, sponges, sea worms. All still emit a salty, fishy smell. It's so cold and oceanlike in the room that you can almost imagine being underwater with some of nature's strangest creations. It's from these thousands of glass jars that Pettit created his drugs.

"These are the types of things we chemists would never have thought of," he says. "Nature has a 3.8-billion-year head start."

Pettit spent many years of his life collecting these specimens — their scientific value is almost matched by their sentimental value to him and his family. His wife, Margaret-Jean, has had two heart attacks in the years since his fights with the university began in earnest. She can't talk about it without getting emotional, and Pettit worries about her health. All five of the Pettits' children have degrees in science. His daughter Peggy Rumil, an organic chemist who works for the U.S. Forest Service in conservation, remembers summer vacations spent collecting specimens as a family.

"We'd be gone on one expedition or another, collecting specimens — plants, insects, amphibians and, in the later years, we got into the marine stuff," she says. "We'd be driving around in a station wagon packed to the gills with these bags of plants."

Pettit was one of the first scientists to do this kind of work.

The National Cancer Institute has been around for 70 years now, but cancer research took off in earnest in the '40s. From the very start, there was an interest in natural product drugs. One of the first anti-cancer drugs invented — methotrexate — was derived from the May apple.

Organic drugs continue to play an important role in cancer treatment, even after scientists began to look at ways to fight cancer by attacking its genes, and as chemotherapy and radiation became popular treatments. Drugs remain important in fighting tumors, stopping nausea associated with chemo or radiation, and stopping cancer cell division.

For example, in the '90s, scientists discovered that the bark of the Pacific yew tree had a compound that played a key role in inhibiting cell division. Topotecan, the first class of drugs to attack topoisomerase (an enzyme that works with DNA during cancer cell replication), was derived from the bark of a Chinese tree.

It sounds ultra-scientific, but the bottom line is that the drug and others like it saved or prolonged the lives of lung, colorectal and ovarian cancer patients.

Today about 60 percent of cancer drugs on the market are derived from natural products.

Pettit has worked closely with the NCI since the '60s, receiving funding for many of his projects and expeditions via the NCI and the National Institute for Health.

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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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