A nationally recognized scientist and leading cancer researcher at ASU is suing the university and top administrators, accusing them of firing him after he blew the whistle on the mishandling of medical patent applications and school finances.
George Robert Pettit, director of the Cancer Research Institute at Arizona State University since 1975, is credited with developing several cancer-fighting drugs. But he recently was stripped of that title and his post as Dalton Chair, an honor given to him by the donor who established the position.
Pettit said he was fired in July after a university investigation determined he had made false statements about an associate professor to ruin her reputation. Pettit alleges the firing actually was in retaliation for his efforts to expose poor management and potentially faulty patents, court documents said.
Pettit filed a lawsuit last month in Maricopa County Superior Court, but ASU had the case moved this week to U.S. District Court in Phoenix. Pettit claims ASU President Michael Crow, vice president Milton Glick and Biodesign Institute director George Poste have tried to force the Cancer Research Institute out of its own building and to force Pettit to leave.
ASU officials declined to comment Friday because the case is pending. Pettit didn’t return phone calls requesting an interview.
Pettit holds more than 60 patents on drugs mostly formulated for cancer treatment. The drugs are made from plants, microorganisms and animals and include Bryostatin 1, known by the brand name Bryosomes. Pettit also was a key figure in writing the university’s patent policy in the mid-1980s.
Pettit’s lengthy lawsuit details years of friction between him and top ASU officials over the university’s system of developing medical drugs and then signing potentially lucrative licensing deals with pharmaceutical companies.
Pettit alleges ASU officials violate parts of the policy meant to ensure the university received licensing and sub-licensing fees from drug companies.
The lawsuit cites an incident in 1997, when ASU official Alan Poskanzer met with drug maker Oxigene Co. to reach on agreement on what the company would pay for a medicine Pettit invented. Pettit claims Poskanzer offered Oxigene a two-year option for the drug for $300,000.
Pettit protested the deal for two years, arguing the university wouldn’t receive sub-licensing fees. But ASU signed the deal anyway, the lawsuit says.
Problems arose in December 1999, when Oxigene sublicensed the patents for $70 million, with a $20 million cash payment, to drug giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. ASU got nothing from that deal, the lawsuit says, but sublicensing could have netted it $10 million.
Later, ASU and Oxigene ended up in a legal dispute that cost the university $170,000.
The lawsuit also says the Arizona Board of Regents changed the patent policy in 1999 at the behest of Poskanzer and Jonathan Fink, ASU’s vice president of research, to remove licensing oversight and add a 15 percent surcharge on gross licensing income collected from ASU’s patent licenses. Pettit opposed several of the changes.
The Arizona Legislature got involved in the dispute in 2000, with Pettit testifying at committee hearings. ASU ended up pledging in a letter to drop the surcharge from the policy.
Lawmakers began questioning spending by ASU’s Office of Technology Collaborations and Licensing, which is responsible for patents. A state audit revealed the office was mismanaged and inappropriately spent funds, eventually leading to Poskanzer’s termination.
Afterward, Pettit says in the lawsuit, he was targeted by acts of retaliation — a violation of state whistle-blower protections.
Pettit was accused of scientific misconduct in 2000, but an ASU investigation later determined the charges were unfounded. ASU also audited the Cancer Research Institute’s finances in 2001 while Pettit was on a research expedition. The audit found nothing was amiss.
The lawsuit says Pettit was removed as cancer research director following a university investigation into his reports that ASU associate professor Yung Chang had submitted faulty patent applications that were based on flawed experiments. Chang had applied for them under Pettit’s name, the lawsuit says, putting him and other scientists at risk of federal fraud charges and placing the public’s health at risk.
Chang complained to ASU officials that Petit was trying to ruin her professional reputation. An ASU investigation supported Chang’s versions of events.
Pettit filed a whistleblower complaint last fall and asked Crow for a hearing. It was denied.
Pettit also is suing Chang as part of the lawsuit.
A court date has not been set.