A Cancer on ASU
When Arizona State University students filed back into the classroom this week, Bob Pettit found himself someplace he hasn't been for a very long time: an introductory chemistry lab.
Pettit is one of the top organic chemists in the world, and his cancer research is recognized as some of the most groundbreaking ever. He holds 65 patents at ASU on anti-cancer compounds, and the center he founded on campus the Cancer Research Institute is known as the pioneer in developing anti-cancer drugs derived from marine compounds.
He has published 14 books and 728 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. He's trained hundreds of chemists, overseen countless post-doctoral researchers, and brought millions of dollars to the university in the form of licensing revenue from patents on his cancer drugs.
In his 40 years at ASU, Pettit put the university's chemistry department on the map.
But now this veteran chemist, dubbed a "national treasure" by the National Cancer Institute, is teaching an elementary undergraduate class an incredible humiliation for a man of his stature.
Pettit has been stripped of his leadership titles, and his Cancer Research Institute has been effectively dismantled, with his research grinding almost to a halt. He's back in the small lab he worked in when he first came to ASU in 1965. He's probably lucky to still have his tenured regent's professor position.
His research notebooks 25 filing cabinets full are missing. Even worse, thousands of marine organisms, from which he's derived the compounds used in his anti-cancer drugs, are locked in a basement he can't access. This research might have saved lives, though Pettit will possibly never know what he could have done with it. At 77, he's not exactly young (though he can still jog six miles at a stretch), and even if he manages to win the lawsuit he's got pending against ASU and start over someday with a new center, without his specimens, compounds and research notebooks, Bob Pettit is lost.
It is clear to many that ASU is making an example of him. Showing other professors what can happen when you challenge university policy.
After years of complaining about, and fighting, scientific policies and patent/licensing rules at the university even going so far as to file a whistle-blower's complaint in the late '90s Pettit has met his match in the university's current administration.
Go up against ASU brass these days, and chances are you'll be staring down Michael Crow, the university's charismatic, controversial president. There's a vigorous debate on campus, particularly among some university scientists, about whether Crow has ASU's best interest in mind with his plan for a New American University.
Old-schoolers worry the savvy president is running the place more like a corporation than a university. People point to Bob Pettit as an example of that, although it's unclear just how involved Crow has been in the day-to-day decision-making in Pettit's case. It's evident from the documents reviewed for this story that he at least knew about it.
New Times has examined hundreds of documents, memos, scientific studies and e-mails (about 3,000 pages) pertaining to Pettit's research and legal case. More than a dozen scientists and other experts nationwide verified the value of his research even ASU officials agree there and former ASU administrators vouched for his integrity as a professor. Because Pettit is suing the university, no current administrators would talk. George Poste, the director of the university's Biodesign Institute and the man responsible for firing Pettit's staff and dismantling his research center, declined to discuss either Pettit or cancer research at ASU. President Michael Crow and former university provost Milton Glick also refused to comment.
To say that Pettit was more forthcoming is an understatement. Once he gets going, the professor loves to talk it's impossible to spend less than an hour with him at a time. New Times spent close to 30 hours with Pettit reviewing his case and discussing his research. As he discusses his ordeal usually over ice cream (one of his few vices) he tries to joke about it, but his eyes reveal the toll the past few years have taken. He's tired.
And worse, he's been unable to find a lawyer to take his case. Pettit's been through three firms so far. Denis Wilenchik, a Phoenix attorney who represented Pettit for eight months in 2006, says he wishes he had the resources to see the case through, but because Pettit was paying him hourly, and because ASU has a much larger legal budget, it just became impossible.
"I do believe he has a case. The problem is no one is willing to carry on years and years of tough, expensive litigation," Wilenchik says. "These guys are going to file every motion they can. That's the game to wear him down. It's a huge case, going up against some big firms that play the game loading you up with as much crap as they can."
And Wilenchik doesn't say it, but Pettit can likely be a tough client at times. Though the professor looks like a caricature of the genial, soft-spoken scientist, complete with thick-rimmed black glasses, he does have a reputation around the university for being "difficult" and that's the kindest word people used when describing him. This is a man who is used to getting what he wants, and get out of the way when he doesn't.
Yet abrasiveness is not uncommon in a university setting. As Robert Barnhill, a former vice president for research at ASU, put it, "It's needed to have a strong personality to succeed in university research."
And to watch his laboratory and institute decimated has been the ultimate humiliation for a researcher in the twilight of his career. Though at this point it's clear that the CRI is gone, Pettit refuses to give it up. He's still pushing back as best he can, hoping one day to be restored to his former glory.
When Pettit started out as a chemist, antibiotics were the "in" drug to research. Now genomics research has taken over the science world. But this guy only ever wanted to find a drug that would cure cancer.
"I have a tremendous sense of sadness for cancer victims, for all the world-class chemists and biologists who worked with me, and a tremendous sadness to see the building being partially destroyed and empty," he says. "I have a great sadness, too, for our university. It took me over 30 years to get the labs built the way I wanted."
It took less than a year to bring them down.
Pettit has been obsessed with organic chemistry, and cancer, since he was a child growing up in Long Shore, New Jersey. He remembers the first time he saw a chemistry set. He was 10. A friend of his got one from his uncle, and Pettit was so in awe he mowed every lawn in the neighborhood until he could afford his own. Years later, his early chemistry sets would go up on display in the lobby of the Cancer Research Institute a nod to his single-mindedness when it comes to science and, maybe, a slight massage for his ego.
As a young teen, Pettit apprenticed in a pharmacy and later worked as an assistant to a pathologist at the local hospital. It was there his interest in cancer really grew.
"I began to see what cancer was all about by dissecting cancer patients. I thought, 'This is perfectly horrible,'" he says. "I didn't have a good name for it when I was 15, but to me it didn't look right."
Pettit grew up about a mile from the ocean. When he wasn't slicing up cancer victims at the morgue, he was down at the beach, where he collected and observed sea creatures in the tide pools. He noticed none of them ever appeared sick, and certainly none of them had the signs of cancer he was so accustomed to seeing at work. He wondered if there was something occurring in these invertebrates that kept them healthy.
Though the pathologist he worked with urged him to go to medical school, Pettit opted against it.
"I decided I was not going to do that, because I thought the answer might really lie in chemistry," he says.
At that time, there were no cancer drugs, not officially, anyway. Pettit started college in 1948, the year before the FDA approved the first drug used to treat cancer. Many of his chemist colleagues thought he was crazy for wanting to work on fighting cancer when there were more lucrative areas to explore as a chemist.
Pettit got his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Washington State University and went on to get both his master's and his doctorate degrees from Detroit's Wayne State University. He later moved to the University of Maine, where he established his first research group and began collaborating with the National Cancer Institute, then in the early stages of anti-cancer drug development.
When Pettit came to ASU from the University of Maine in 1965, he moved into a small laboratory facility in the chemistry department ironically, it's the same 1,000-square-foot lab he's been shoved back into years later.
At the time, ASU was finding its identity as a university, having started out as a teachers' college.
Pettit was attracted to ASU because of the allure of expanded lab space. At the University of Maine, he didn't have much room. Though he initially moved into a small lab, ASU promised him a substantial amount of space in the newly expanded chemistry department. Not only that, he says he was attracted to the chance of working with LeRoy Eyring, the chair of the chemistry department and another research pioneer. (Eyring recently died.)
Pettit came to ASU for the first time to give a lecture while passing through Arizona on his way to Stanford, where he was a visiting professor for one semester.
"Dr. Eyring asked me to give a lecture on the way," he says. "When I did, it turned out to be a tender trap."
Since his time in Maine, Pettit had entertained the thought of creating a research institution where he could fully explore his ideas about marine organisms and cancer. He began to solicit funding in 1965, and that same year was able to launch his first exploratory marine expedition.
By 1973, Pettit had gathered around him the first research team for what was then called the Cancer Research Laboratory. Two years later, the group was renamed the Cancer Research Institute.
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.
"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.
The task of getting a cancer drug on the market is arduous. From the process of specimen collection to clinical trial, drug discovery takes at least 15 years. And that's assuming everything goes well.
Basically, after the specimens are collected, microbiologists extract useful compounds, and chemists help isolate them into a form that is testable. The compounds are tested and screened against different cancer cell lines to see how the two interact. If that step is successful, the chemists then have to try to find a way to synthesize the compound after all, if it's only produced in one kind of sea sponge from a remote part of the world, a compound isn't useful unless it can be re-created.
If that step goes well, the compound can go into preclinical development and then on to animal studies. If there are no problems at that step, the compound can go to human clinical trials, which happen in three phases.
Currently, there are nine CRI drugs in some phase of human clinical trial.
Two of these drugs auristatin and combretastatin are especially promising.
Combretastatin has been successful in treating non-small-cell lung cancer in phase three clinical trials and has FDA orphan drug status for the treatment of thyroid cancer. It's also been shown to work well against prostate, breast and ovarian cancers, as well as proving effective against tumors. CA4 its shorthand name also has shown some indications of being successful in treating myopic macular degeneration, an eye disease that affects thousands of people in the U.S.
Pettit's group at Arizona State University provided national researchers with compounds, including bryostatin-1, that Dr. Peter Blumberg, chief of the NCI's molecular mechanisms of tumor promotion section, has worked with extensively. Blumberg says he's "very much impressed" by both the drug currently in both phase one and phase two clinical trials and Pettit's research.
"He's done an outstanding job identifying drug candidates," says Blumberg.
Pettit also provided several groups of compounds to NCI researcher Ernest Hammel, the senior investigator of the NCI's laboratory of drug discovery research and development, that showed promise in stopping blood vessel growth in tumors.
According to Paul Wender, the Bergstrom Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, Pettit is one of the leading natural compound chemists in the country.
"Several [of Pettit's compounds] are among the more promising leads for the treatment of cancer that have been uncovered in the past three decades," he says. "It is clear we are not making the best of our national resources when laboratories with this record of success are shut down."
In spite of his successful cancer research, life at ASU was not smooth for Pettit, particularly moving into the late 1990s.
His research continued to flourish, but his career was not without conflict. Some people loved him donors, for example, were willing to open their pocketbooks again and again (to the tune of around $25 million) thanks to his charm and dedication to cancer research.
Others say they couldn't stand working with him. His conflicts sprang up mostly surrounding patents on his drugs and inventions.
Former ASU vice president Barnhill says though he liked and respected Pettit as a scientist, there were occasional problems.
"He wasn't easy to work with, but that's not necessarily a bad thing," Barnhill says. "Faculty are trained to be entrepreneurial, and he tended to carry that pretty far. He was particularly interested in protecting intellectual property rights again, not a bad thing, but he was more severe than most people."
Others are more blunt. Alan Poskanzer worked with Pettit in the '90s as an officer with ASU's technology transfer department, responsible for arranging licensing agreements. It was no secret around the university that the two men could not, and really did not want to, get along. Poskanzer left the university in 2002, and today operates his own licensing consulting firm based in Payson.
Poskanzer dislikes Pettit and says he went out of his way to make licensing agreements difficult. But even he says the work Pettit's group did was valuable.
"The people who support him don't have to work with him," says Poskanzer, adding that the administration really didn't feel it had much of a use for Pettit. "Milton Glick had no use for Bob Pettit. Michael Crow had no use for Bob Pettit. Jonathan Fink had no use for Bob Pettit."
And, Poskanzer adds, "I had to work with Bob Pettit." That didn't go well.
The two were fundamentally at odds when it came to the way technology was licensed at ASU. Under the Arizona Board of Regents policy, when licensing revenue comes in, the money is split up evenly among the university, the inventor and the labs.
Pettit has always been very vocal about inventors' rights. For example, when a 15 percent overhead on licensing income was established, he was one of its loudest critics. Poskanzer calls it greed, but Pettit says he was just trying to protect his intellectual property and generate as much revenue as possible to help fight cancer.
In 1997, Pettit's issue with Poskanzer and the technology licensing office came to a head.
In April of that year, Pettit discussed an option agreement with pharmaceutical company OXiGENE for his compound Combretastatin A-4 Prodrug. According to Pettit's lawsuit, which does not name Poskanzer as a defendant, the company verbally agreed to option the drug for $300,000 for two years, and promised to bring the drug to phase one clinical trials within that time period. After Pettit's original discussion, Poskanzer met separately with the same company officials and arranged a pre-license agreement with OXiGENE on the rest of the combretastatin drug family at no additional charge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
By October 13 10 days after the group received the safety report they had conducted two internal safety inspections, held a general safety meeting with their staff, met with the EH&S office for clarification and conducted a follow-up inspection to make sure that safety recommendations were properly followed.
But the group's funds remained frozen. Poste insisted Pettit was not in compliance with the provost's orders.
As 2005 came to a close, Pettit was starting to feel the effects of the funding freeze.
Pettit was particularly concerned about money from his Dalton Endowment. Though he was stripped of the title as of September 1, 2005, he still should have received a quarterly payment on June 30 of that year, before he was removed from the position, totaling $77,243.92. The check was, according to Pettit, sent to the university to be deposited in his account in July. Pettit says the money was never received.
Because he didn't have it, he says, he was forced to fire two of his expert chemists.
During that time, he was told by Provost Glick that he could not apply for any new federal grant money, a worry as the application deadline for the next year was approaching.
Next, Glick sent a letter to Pettit informing him that he now reported directly to Poste and Tracy, rather than to the provost.
The person who made this decision, as indicated in Glick's letter, was Michael Crow, the university's president.
"You must direct your inquiries, requests and concerns to Dr. Poste or Dr. Tracy, not to me, effective today. They will make decisions regarding you and your research group and the other personnel who work in the CCR, including the determination of whether you have met the conditions required to unfreeze your research accounts and accept proposals from you for research funding," Glick writes.
This transfer of power was the death knell for Pettit's group.
The year ended with a flurry of nasty, frustrated e-mails in which Pettit insisted he was in compliance and Poste insisted he was not.
In a late 2005 e-mail, Poste writes, "The authority to decide whether or not you have met the Provost's request for your compliance and cooperation resides with Dr. Tracy and myself. It is therefore unnecessary to burden the Provost with his inclusion on future correspondence that pertain to this matter."
By January 2006, it was over for Bob Pettit. His university funds were frozen, his Dalton Endowment was gone. His longstanding personal grant from the National Institute of Health was not renewed, because of federal funding cuts. In the mail tussle with Poste, somehow Pettit's researchers' applications for funding were never sent. The research group was essentially broke.
All researchers received a notice that they were to report to a meeting with Poste at 8 a.m. on a Friday in mid-January 2006. Pettit was ordered by Poste not to attend.
They were all fired.
Jack Knight, who was the assistant director for chemistry at the CRI, says even the letter firing them was condescending.
"The letters they sent out, they addressed everybody just as 'mister.' Now, that might seem like just a small thing, but in a university, rank is considered almost like you're in the Army," he says. "Most of us were entitled to be addressed as 'doctor' or 'professor.' It just seemed like one more calculated snub."
Poste informed the group they were fired and only a handful of people would be allowed back into the building after that day. The rest were given a short amount of time to go in, accompanied by a security guard, to collect their personal belongings.
In spite of the fact that his CRI no longer exists, Pettit is not giving up. He's still petitioning to have his Dalton Chair reactivated. He's looking for a lawyer. And he and his three remaining researchers are still doing cancer research, the best they can.
Pettit's dedication, and unwillingness to give up the work he loved, is heartbreaking.
But without access to the research of his former employees or his specimens, his work has ground almost to a standstill.
After he was officially evicted from the CRI building (the building that he designed and paid for with his federal grant money and donations), he was moved into a lab in the math building with less than 1,000 square feet of space. The lab is busted-up and dirty it looks about as advanced as a high school chemistry lab, except not as big. The fume hoods needed to do the chemistry Pettit does are old and rickety.
It's a familiar space to Pettit the lab he started out in at ASU, in 1965.
Today the CRI building has been renamed Interdisciplinary Technology and Sciences Building 5. In spite of the transition, there are still signs up that say CRI. Near a door on the south side there's a label that reads clearly "CRI Staff Only." Plaques in honor of donors who helped construct the building still hang outside the decimated laboratories.
Inside the building, the floors are smeared with dirt. Offices have been gutted. The lights are off in every hallway, giving the building a creepy, ghost-town feeling. The labs, most of which have had all their equipment ripped out, are empty. Some are used for storage of paint cans.
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."
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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