A Cancer on ASU

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

The Biodesign Institute is part of the university's plan to become a well-known scientific institution. It focuses on both cures for disease and protection from biological attacks. Currently the institute is receiving funding from the Department of Defense and the National Institute for Health. No officially classified research is going on there, according to the university, though many of the labs are "sensitive" and the building is heavily guarded.

Poste was appointed as director of Biodesign after a long career at GlaxoSmithKline, and while there's no denying he's good at getting drugs on the market, his presence and demeanor have inspired a sense of general unease among the old guard of ASU's scientific community. Part of the concern stems from the fact that Poste comes from a business, not academic, background. Many professors fear being forced to do research as though they worked at a corporation rather than a university.

Obviously, being put under the control of a younger scientist with no experience teaching at a university hurt Pettit's ego, but it also raised serious concerns in his mind about the future of his research labs.

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 a memo sent to then-provost Milton Glick in July 2005 — six months after Poste took over — Pettit says, "Your orders in January to transfer myself and the total research staff . . . to the Biodesign Institute and then placing George Poste in a position of administrative authority over the Institute has led to, among other serious problems, a rapid degradation of security and safety in the CRI building."

Poste made no secret about his disdain for the group. He demanded 5,000 square feet of the CRI's laboratory space be dedicated to biodesign by February 1 of that year, with another 10,000 square feet to be appropriated by May.

Poste says he is not able to comment about Pettit because of the pending lawsuit.

In any case, things got unbelievably petty between the two scientists. Arguments centered on the use of e-mail versus snail mail, and on packages allegedly lost in the mail. Pettit became upset because Poste refused to let him tape-record their meetings (Poste asked to meet often) or to bring a third party along.

Months into the feud, Pettit wrote to Glick, requesting that an ombudsman accompany him to a meeting with Poste.

Pettit writes, "After 10 months of relentless (and grotesque) abuse, intimidations, threats, humiliations . . . it seemed long past due to bring a university ombudsman with me."

Poste refused.

By July 2005, Bob Pettit was no longer director of his Cancer Research Institute. He remained involved in the research, but had to report to Michael Tracy, deputy director for the Biodesign Institute, who was named director of Pettit's group (renamed the Center for Cancer Research) after his directorship expired in summer 2005. Tracy is another corporate scientist, whose background is mainly in organic chemistry, and cancer drugs. The Center's researchers remained employed, and Pettit continued to handle the day-to-day under the authority of Tracy.

If you visit the Web site for the Biodesign Institute, you'll see a link to the Center's page. Click the link, however, and you're taken to a dead page.

When asked for details regarding current cancer research at the university, Poste declined to comment. In an e-mail, he writes, "While I appreciate the offer to discuss the exciting cancer-related research of the Biodesign Institute, it would be inappropriate for me to do so in connection with this article. Any co-mingling of commentary about Dr. Pettit's legal dispute with ASU and discussion of Biodesign's research would imply a connection that doesn't exist."

In August 2005, Poste conducted an impromptu inspection of the building, then sent a report to university administration indicating he was "concerned" about the safety of the building.

In its entire 30 years of operation, the CRI had never had a major safety incident.

An official safety audit was ordered following Poste's visit. It turned up 501 violations — many came from problems that were under the jurisdiction of the university's Environmental Health and Safety department to correct. EH&S had not inspected the eye washes or safety showers in each lab that year, nor had it provided safety guidelines for each lab, yet the CRI was charged for each of those violations in every lab. Most of the other violations were easily fixable — for example, re-labeling jars or removing a door stop from a door.

Because he was still in charge of the research group, though was no longer director of the center, it was Pettit's responsibility to correct the violations.

Pettit and his group were told in a letter from Provost Glick there would be a freeze on the group's funds until they remedied these violations.

This inspection came in the middle of another squabble — Poste and Pettit exchanged a series of nasty e-mails about a new door lock system Poste had ordered installed. The new locks required key swipes and locked from the outside. Pettit and his group maintained the doors were unsafe, citing an accident that happened in the '70s where a graduate chemistry student was locked in a lab (not at the CRI) and burned to death because no one could get to him. Poste insisted the locks were safe and posed no risk.

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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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