A Cancer on ASU

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

Poskanzer says he was within his right to do this. After all, no one signed anything when Pettit spoke to the officials. Pettit, however, was furious that he had not been consulted for the final agreement — especially since the rest of the combretastatin family was optioned for the same amount of money the company was willing to pay just for the CA4 Prodrug.

Pettit complained vigorously.

But in August of 1999, ASU made the licensing agreement official, and five months later OXiGENE did what Pettit had feared — sublicensed the patents to Bristol-Myers Squibb Company for $70 million, a figure both Pettit and Poskanzer confirm.

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.

This sublicense agreement made Pettit even angrier. He felt ASU and his group should have received some of the sublicense money.

"I wasn't too happy about it, either," says Poskanzer. "But if Bristol-Myers can help get combretastatin commercialized, fine."

As a result of the very noisy complaining Pettit was doing, he started to worry about retaliation that might come from Poskanzer's direction (or from Poskanzer's boss, Jonathan Fink, the vice president for research).

After all, accusing people of "gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, and an abuse of authority," as Pettit ultimately did in his lawsuit when referring to the OXiGENE/Bristol-Myers agreement, is no small thing.

Pettit filed for, and was granted, whistle-blower status by ASU's general counsel and the provost's office on August 23, 1999.

Pettit continued to butt heads with Fink and Poskanzer throughout 1999, especially about a proposed change to the patent policy that removed inventor oversight — and veto power — on licensing agreements.

The professor says he's never been in it for the money. Today he lives just off his professor's salary and says he hasn't received a royalty payment in a year. It is true that he's personally grossed millions of dollars, over the course of his career, as a result of patents.

In June 1999, Pettit and several other scientists from his group protested the proposed licensing agreement changes at a state Board of Regents meeting. The changes were tabled, but a month later the regents approved them.

Around the same time, the International Foundation for Anti-Cancer Drug Discovery began lobbying the Arizona Legislature to remove the surcharge and give inventors back the power to control where their inventions went. Pettit was asked to testify, which he says just made the ASU administration angrier.

Around the time he was testifying at the Legislature, a man who had participated in a 1998 diving expedition with Pettit's group in Chile came forward, accusing Pettit of scientific misconduct on the expedition. The man was also a close friend and diving buddy of Poskanzer's — something even Poskanzer admits.

Observers say it looked like a case of retaliation against Pettit for the problems he'd caused Poskanzer.

The charges were dropped in March 2000. But Pettit's real problems with ASU had yet to begin.

Two years later, the university had a new president, Michael Crow, who had a request for Bob Pettit: Would he be willing to give up some lab space for either T-Gen (the nonprofit genomics research group based in downtown Phoenix) or the university's new Biodesign Institute?

Pettit refused. Two weeks later, an audit of the Cancer Research Institute was announced. In his lawsuit, Pettit says there was a link between his refusal and the audit, which he believes was a fishing expedition.

In the end, little was caught.

The main problems centered on the hiring and compensation of personnel, which was not entirely in line with the rest of the chemistry department — they made less money because they were paid by the CRI's grants, not the university. Pettit remedied these problems immediately once he was made aware of them.

The report concluded the "CRI's system of Internal Control is effectively managing and controlling its operations in all material respects."

After the audit, Pettit's relationship with the university administration remained tense, but manageable. Tensions exploded in early 2004 when Pettit finally made a real mistake. Not the kind that costs lives, but the kind that can cost a career, if you have the wrong enemies.

In March 2004, Yung Chang, a biologist who collaborated with but was not employed by Pettit's group, filed two provisional patent applications, using compounds developed by Pettit's group. This was done without Pettit's knowledge. When Pettit complained, the university sided with Chang.

One of the university's biggest arguments is that Chang only filed a provisional patent, meaning she had a year to add things to it and amend it. Still, Pettit insists he should have known what she was doing with his compounds and she should have waited until she had more substantial data before filing even a provisional application.

Chang and Pettit had worked together since 2002, studying two CRI drugs invented by Pettit and another researcher, Noleen Melody. Chang declined to comment for this story, saying she considers the event behind her. She remains an associate professor in ASU's life sciences department.

But here's what happened, culled from interviews, Pettit's lawsuit, patent applications and investigative materials.

Yung Chang wanted to know if Pettit and Melody's drugs might work for arthritis as well as cancer. Chang decided to pursue the idea further at Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City. That's totally kosher. A researcher is welcome to study drugs in that way, as long as permission is granted from the inventor and the university. Pettit did give permission, though only for her to study "aging disease," and not specifically arthritis.

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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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