A Cancer on ASU

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

In 2004, Chang felt she had results worth publishing. She wanted to file for a provisional patent application on the compound for the purpose of treating arthritis.

A novice at filing patents, Chang fumbled through the process, at one point questioning if Pettit's name should even go on the application. An experienced patent writer would know that of course it would, since Pettit had discovered the drug and already held a patent on it, for the use of treating cancer.

Furious over this snub, and also concerned that the provisional application was filed without sufficient research to back up the claims, Pettit sent a memo to Chang, copied to Peter Slate (the chief executive officer for Arizona Technology Enterprises, ASU's tech licensing arm), informing her he felt the patents were "non-enabling" — essentially that there wasn't enough experimental data included — and he wished to terminate all further collaborations with Chang. He demanded she return the CRI compounds to him.

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.

He also contacted Chang's collaborator at Sun Health to inform her of the flaws in the applications, worried she could be implicated for fraud.

That is where Pettit made a mistake. He violated university protocol.

The thing is, charges of scientific misconduct are supposed to be reported directly to the vice president for research. Pettit says he thought he was doing the right thing by informing Chang of her mistake — he didn't want to get her in trouble, he simply wanted the patents pulled.

Chang didn't pull the patents and walk away. Instead, she alleged that Pettit had gone out of his way to damage her professional reputation by sending the memo and contacting her collaborators at Sun Health.

In April 2004, Pettit learned that Chang had filed an official complaint against him.

Pettit was placed on administrative leave. He also was suspended as director of the Cancer Research Institute.

If he had reported Chang straight to Fink, it would have been Chang undergoing the investigation because according to accepted procedure, all claims of scientific misconduct are investigated — always. Instead, Pettit was on the line.

The investigation lasted for about two months. In August 2004, after the investigation concluded, Pettit received a letter from Glick informing him the university was taking Chang's side. Starting June 30, 2005, Pettit would no longer be the director of the CRI.

Pettit had been interviewed, extensively — one session lasted nine hours — during the investigation, but in his lawsuit he alleges that he was treated unfairly, something Robert Byers, one of his employees who was at the interview, echoes.

From a review of the investigative materials, it's obvious that no attempt was made to determine whether Pettit was telling the truth. The investigation simply focused on the fact he'd alerted the wrong people to his concerns.

No follow-up investigation into the charges of scientific misconduct against Chang has ever been pursued.

And then Bob Pettit's demise began in earnest.

The university maintains the events that followed the Chang affair had nothing to do with the quality of Pettit's research, but were just naturally flowing from what was viewed as misconduct on his part.

Pettit says this was just the perfect excuse to try to get rid of him.

He was only about a year away from total destruction. By the time all was said and done, Pettit's institute had changed names and directorial hands, undergone extensive scrutiny, and ultimately, his entire staff was fired. He remains at the university today only as a tenured chemistry professor.

A month after he lost the directorship of the Cancer Research Institute, he lost his Dalton Chair and Endowment, effective September 1, 2005.

Because the chair came with a hefty trust fund behind it, Pettit had used the endowment to keep the CRI afloat during times when federal grant money was hard to come by. Taking away this funding source was a first step in the bankrupting of the center.

In 1978, the Dalton endowment was created specifically for Pettit. The trust agreement stipulated that Pettit hold the position until he died or retired. The money was to be spent only on cancer research. There was a clause in the endowment that it could only go to the director of the CRI — so, strip Pettit of his directorship and the university could cut off his endowment. (The money didn't go elsewhere; it's currently sitting in the trust.)

In his lawsuit, Pettit alleges this was a denial of his due process rights. Because his directorship and the Dalton Chair were both supposed to have been tenured positions, he says he should not have been stripped of them unless the university followed its tenure revocation policies. The university responds this was an appropriate response to his misconduct.

Pettit filed another administrative whistle-blower complaint in September 2004.

In February 2005, that complaint was denied. ASU's general counsel, Paul Ward, said none of the people to whom Pettit "blew the whistle" about Chang counted as public bodies, therefore nullifying his whistle-blower claim.

Pettit requested a hearing to repeal Ward's position. That was denied.

In early 2005, with the June 30 termination of Pettit's leadership looming, the CRI was folded into the Biodesign Institute and the jurisdiction of director George Poste.

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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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