A Cancer on ASU

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

The few operational labs in the building are being used by scientists who do not do cancer research. When the building was renovated in 1998, Pettit obtained a federal grant that included an important stipulation in the contract: that the university agree to use the building exclusively for cancer research and the development of cancer drugs.

Karl Booksh, a chemist who recently left ASU after 10 years, frustrated, he says, with the direction the university is going, does the same type of research as the scientists who have moved into the old CRI building.

"The CRI was state-of-the-art. It was beautiful," he says. "It's a shame. This facility was designed to do what Bob Pettit is doing. It's like taking a state-of-the-art kitchen and turning it over to someone who's doing barbecue. It's still cooking, but the stuff you need is completely different."

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.

And that's coming from a guy who does the "barbecue" work.

What's happened to Pettit's group has put others on alert.

Bob Blankenship was the chair of ASU's chemistry department until 2005, when he left for Washington University in St. Louis. He says what happened at the CRI isn't looked upon favorably by the scientific community.

"It was, without question, viewed very negatively on the outside," he says. "I had a number of people who contacted me individually who were concerned and surprised that these things would go on. That it would be so aggressive — the action taken against him. You would think they would have figured out a way to get along. You have some very, very strong personalities, and they were simply fighting for control. In the end, I really think that's what it was."

Even Alan Poskanzer, Pettit's old technology licensing enemy, says it's a shame that the center has been destroyed.

"There were some pretty good people who worked for Bob Pettit, and they should have been able to place them elsewhere," he says.

The stabs at Pettit's ego continue. The first lab to be destroyed was one he and his wife had paid for and dedicated to the center. The first office to be taken over and remodeled was his.

"Every time I look at those labs, my heart goes to my feet," Pettit says. "When I look at the ones we donated, it's especially cutting."

Pettit's donors aren't happy about the destruction of the center, either.

Marcia Horn, president of the International Foundation for Anti Cancer Drug Discovery, a Phoenix-based advocacy group for late-stage cancer patients, sees the university's actions as a jab not just to Pettit's ego and work, but to cancer patients.

"When the history of the war on cancer is written, ASU's treatment of Bob Pettit and his chemists will be seen as one of the most destructive and tragic chapters," says Horn, whose group has donated thousands of dollars toward Pettit's research over the years. "And a major blow to cancer patients and drug discovery efforts worldwide."

John Whiteman is the chair of the Whiteman Foundation, based in Mesa. His family's collaboration with the CRI dates back to the '70s.

"I was totally flabbergasted that our — and others' — funds for the CRI had been thwarted from supporting cancer research. Private funds provided significant help in building and equipping CRI's facility with the idea that the Institute was going to continue developing cancer-fighting drugs. No one in their wildest dreams thought the Institute would be dismantled."

Pettit tries to keep going, but these days he can't help but remember the words of his fellow professors way back when he'd first finished school. At that time, the hot ticket in medicinal chemistry was antibiotics.

"When I started as an assistant professor, I remember some of my peers telling me that it would destroy my career if I tried to tackle the cancer problem," he says. He pauses for a moment and asks, smiling ruefully, "Actually, it has, hasn't it?"

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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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