Cancer researcher sues university

Chemist says Arizona State officials retaliated after he reported university wrongdoings

By | September 29, 2005

The director of the Cancer Research Institute at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe is suing the school and some of its senior administrators, claiming he was removed as director in retaliation for blowing the whistle on university officials for mishandling licensing contracts and patent applications for anti-cancer drugs.

George Robert "Bob" Pettit, an organic chemist known for his development of anti-cancer compounds isolated from natural sources like plants and marine animals, was director of the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) since 1975 and held the Dalton Chair of Cancer Research and Medicinal Chemistry since 1986. His lawsuit states that he has been removed from both posts. According to ASU spokesperson Kimberly Ovitt, Pettit is still employed as a professor at ASU, and ASU administrators will not comment on the case while it is pending.

"He's one of the three or four people of his generation in marine natural products that have done the most," John Beutler of the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md., told The Scientist. "He's always been very focused on getting [anti-cancer drugs] into the clinics." Some researchers in the field were aware that Pettit was having problems with ASU administrators, according to Beutler, but most people had only heard about disagreements over lab space. It sounded "like your typical academic squabble over turf," Beutler told The Scientist.

Pettit has "contributed immensely" to the discovery of anti-cancer compounds in marine invertebrates, terrestrial plants, and microorganisms, said David Newman of the National Cancer Institute. Besides identifying these compounds, he also isolates them and works to synthesize medicinal compounds chemically, said Madeleine Jouillé of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "He's been a very versatile chemist," she added. "I wasn't aware he was having these problems and I'm sorry to hear it," Jouillé said. "I think he's put that university on the map."

Pettit has more than 60 patents for anti-cancer drugs, including Bryostatin 1 and Dolastatin 10. In the 1980s, Pettit and his colleagues identifed and isolated a drug called combretastatin from the bark of the African bush willow tree Combretum caffrum. The researchers have developed several derivatives of combretastatin that selectively damage blood vessels in the tumor microenvironment, which starves the tumor of oxygen and nutrients, according to Kevin Pinney at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

One of these derivatives, called Combretastatin A-4 Prodrug (CA4P), played a role in Pettit's initial troubles with ASU administrators, according to his lawsuit. In April 1997, the lawsuit says, Alan Poskanzer from ASU's Office of Technology Collaborations and Licensing agreed to license the rights to CA4P to the Waltham, Mass. company OXiGENE for two years in exchange for $300,000.

According to Pettit's claim, this agreement violated ASU's patent policy because it contained no provision concerning fees should OXiGENE sublicense the ASU patents to another company. Pettit's suit says that he protested the OXiGENE agreement for two years to ASU vice president of research Jonathan Fink, but that ASU signed it anyway.

In December 1999, OXiGENE sublicensed the Combretastatin patents for $70 million to Bristol-Myers-Squibb Company in New York City, which would have netted ASU up to $12.5 million if sublicense provisions had been included, the lawsuit says.

Pettit reported to ASU provost Milton Glick and then-president Lattie F. Coor that Poskanzer and Fink had engaged in wrongful conduct, including waste of public funds and abuse of authority, by mishandling the OXiGENE licensing agreement. This accusation initiated the retaliation against him, according to Pettit's claim.

The lawsuit says that a decision by the Arizona Board of Regents in 1999 to exclude university inventors from overseeing the licensing of their inventions and intellectual property was directed specifically at Pettit and his colleagues at CRI. According to the claim, CRI contributes more than 80% of ASU's total licensing and royalty income.

In the next two years, ASU officials charged Pettit with scientific misconduct and instigated an audit of CRI. The university later concluded that the misconduct charges had no merit, and the audit revealed nothing, the lawsuit says. In mid-2002, it continues, ASU administrators took steps to take away lab space from CRI and make it available to T-Gen, a non-profit biomedical research institute.

Then in the spring of 2004, Pettit charged that ASU microbiology assistant professor Yung Chang had falsified test results for an anti-cancer prodrug and that she used these test results to apply for patents and included Pettit's name on these applications without his knowledge.

An external lawyer hired by ASU determined that Pettit's statements about Chang were defamatory, and Glick informed him in August 2004 that he would not be renewed as director of CRI or as the Dalton Chair when his terms expired in June 2005.

"He's really incredibly talented," said Baylor's Pinney, which he said is demonstrated by Pettit's prolific publication record as well as by "generations upon generations of new scientists that he's trained in his lab."

"The amount of scientific information that his lab has put out is enormous," NCI's Newman agreed. "No question, Bob is one of the great figures in natural product drug discovery related to cancer."

A court date has not been set. Pettit's attorneys declined comment, and Pettit did not return phone calls requesting an interview.

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