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Research Lab Disbanded

Mass layoffs at Arizona State's Cancer Research Institute underscore conflict, politics

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
February 13, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 7

Credit: Peter J. Kiss/Current Biology
Credit: Peter J. Kiss/Current Biology

The researchers had known for a while that trouble was brewing in their building. For the past year and a half, their leader, eminent Arizona State University chemistry professor George Robert (Bob) Pettit, had been feuding with the university's administration over some serious issues, from patents and allegations of fraud to lab safety and building space.

So when George Poste, director of ASU's Biodesign Institute, sent an e-mail on Jan. 26 to the 40-plus group members announcing a mandatory meeting the next morning, to which they were required to bring their campus ID cards, they assumed they were about to lose their jobs.

Their suspicions proved correct. At 8:30 AM, Poste announced that because Pettit's group, the Center for Cancer Research, had been unable to renew its funding, 31 people-17 researchers, seven staff, and seven students, whose salaries were all paid by grants-were being let go from CCR. They were given 30 days' severance pay, but as of that day, they were no longer allowed in the building.

"It was a shock that it happened as suddenly as it did," says Thomas H. Smith, an associate research professor who was one of those ousted.

Associate research chemistry professor John Knight is one of a handful of researchers who remain, but as their grants expire in the next month or so, they, too, will be let go. Knight plans to retire. "The way [Pettit] is being treated is a disgrace," says Knight, who has been with the group for eight years. "I believe the reputation of ASU is likely going to suffer."

The Monday after the Friday layoffs, all but two phones at CCR went unanswered; those people who answered declined to talk. Pettit, who remains at Tempe-based ASU as a tenured Regents Professor, also declined to speak with C&EN.

All ASU administrators contacted by C&EN referred requests for comments to ASU spokesman Virgil Renzulli, vice president for public affairs. Renzulli says the graduate and undergraduate students and staff will be incorporated into other university labs.

According to Renzulli, the layoffs were generated solely because two key federal grants Pettit had applied for were not renewed. But Pettit's supporters say the group's dissolution was an inevitable part of the university's larger aim: to supplant Pettit's research efforts with those of ASU's new, much larger Biodesign Institute.

Over his four decades at ASU, Pettit has garnered considerable fame for his discovery and elucidation of marine natural products with potential anticancer properties. Some of the compounds discovered by Pettit are now in clinical trials, including variants of the compound combretastatin.

"It's not stretching the point to say he is probably one of, if not the most, distinguished faculty members in the chemistry department and even on the whole campus," says Robert Blankenship, chair of ASU's chemistry and biochemistry department.

Since 1975, Pettit has directed the Cancer Research Institute (CRI), which generated the majority of patent royalties for the university for many years, according to CRI members. In 1986, he became the Dalton Chair of Cancer Research & Medicinal Chemistry. Pettit was also a prolific fundraiser, raising millions of dollars in both public and private donations for research and to refurbish and add a new wing to a preexisting building.

But relations between Pettit and the administration deteriorated, beginning with the university's handling of patent licensing in the late 1990s, according to observers.

Then, in 2002, ASU brought in a new president: Michael M. Crow, formerly executive vice provost at Columbia University. His stated goal has been to turn ASU from a relatively undistinguished state university into a giant research institution. Part of Crow's dream is the Biodesign Institute, a four-building facility. Two buildings, each with 170,000 sq ft and costing about $80 million, have already been completed.

Under Crow's direction, ASU began allotting space in the CRI building to other researchers. Members of CRI say they were asked to uproot their labs to make room for new members of the Biodesign Institute. "It was pretty disruptive," Smith says, but ultimately, he tells C&EN, there was probably enough space to go around. "I think [the situation] could have been defused-but that didn't happen," he says.

Last year, ASU incorporated CRI into the Biodesign Institute and renamed it the Center for Cancer Research. This sort of overhaul is not unheard of in academia, but after Pettit objected, his colleagues say, the situation deteriorated rapidly.

"He's a marked man at that institution," adds Michael Boyd, director of the University of South Alabama Cancer Institute, Mobile, and a longtime collaborator with Pettit. "The whole sad story is just beyond my comprehension."

Observers say the beginning of the end came in March 2004, when Pettit charged that associate microbiology professor Yung Chang had falsified some test results and had used Pettit's name on a patent application without his knowledge. The university determined that Pettit had defamed Chang and informed Pettit that he would not be renewed as endowed Dalton Chair, nor would he any longer be director of CCR.

Pettit responded with a lawsuit, still pending, against ASU, in which he alleges that his whistle-blowing against Chang, as well as his previous complaints about the university's patent-licensing policies, resulted in a campaign of harassment by ASU.

In some ways, the conflict between powerful professor and administration resembles that at Florida State University, where famed organic chemist Robert A. Holton is battling with the university over the use of his patent royalties (C&EN, Dec. 12, 2005, page 27). "But that's nothing by comparison," says Carl Djerassi, Stanford University emeritus chemistry professor, with whom Pettit got his Ph.D. 50 years ago. "What ASU destroyed is probably irrevocable."

In the fall of 2005, came an exhaustive safety inspection of Pettit's lab, where officials tallied more than 500 safety violations. Lab members protest that the citations included gratuitous items such as razor blades being left on a bench.

"I think a majority of us would seriously question a university's willingness to do such a thing to an academic scientist," says William Fenical, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., who has known Pettit for years.

ASU then froze Pettit's accounts. Though Pettit's group members claim they addressed the safety concerns, ASU disagreed, and the accounts remain frozen. Pettit was also prohibited from soliciting funding from philanthropic sources.

Compounding its financial problems, CCR is no longer receiving money from the Robert B. Dalton Endowment fund, which funded Pettit's chair and also donated money to ASU. The final blow came when Pettit's two major multiyear federal grants totaling $4.5 million were not renewed.

Without other possible funding sources, CCR was broke. Pettit "has had some times when grants expired and weren't renewed, but he had always been able to [fill the gap] from private sources," Smith says.

Many of these issues will have to be settled by the lawsuit. Things are moving slowly, as Pettit's legal representative, Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Phoenix, has had to withdraw from the case because of a conflict of interest.

Even when it reaches a courtroom, the lawsuit will not be cut-and-dried, says Glenn L. Krinsky, a health care attorney with Ropes & Gray, who has read the complaint. In fact, he says, universities could be within their rights to do many of the things cited in the lawsuit. "Employers can lock buildings all the time. And except for an extremely tightly restricted gift, a university can do with it what it wants," he says.

While the drama waits to play out, the disbanded group's members will be trying to find new research homes. But Pettit's once-venerable research program will likely never be the same.

"It didn't really have to happen," Smith says. "I think that's a loss for science."


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