Every few days, Bob Pettit ’52 runs six miles. Now 83, he has done this since his late 20s, when he joined the faculty of the University of Maine and felt the mounting tensions of academic life.

“It’s a great release of stress,” he said this fall while visiting Pullman to receive the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, the highest honor for WSU alumni. “And I think aerobic exercise is the secret formula for longevity.”

Pettit’s running habit also speaks to his fortitude, whether he’s diving in waters around the world in a search for natural cures to cancer, finding new ways to process tons of marine organisms, or rebuilding his career after an administrative firestorm that, in effect, deprived him of access to a massive endowment, thousands of samples, scores of notebooks, and a multi-million dollar lab.

George R. Pettit
George R. “Bob” Pettit ’52. (Peter J. Kiss)

“There are three ways to be successful,” he says. “Never give up, never give up, and never give up. Giving up is not my style.”

Pettit has been on the trail of a cure for cancer since his teens, when he first saw the ravages of the disease while working in a hospital pathology lab. At the same time, he was fascinated by the sea life around his home on the New Jersey shore. How is it, he wondered, that humans get cancer when these creatures never seem to? Somehow, he reasoned, they had developed anti-cancer compounds as they evolved over millions, even billions of years.

He earned a degree in chemistry at Washington State University before getting master’s and doctoral degrees at Wayne State University, where he studied with Carl Djerassi, who developed one of the first oral contraceptives. He started systematically collecting fungi at the University of Maine and continued at Arizona State University, broadening his searches to plants and marine animals around the world.

Off the Maldives, he collected black sponges and found in them spongistatin, a promising therapy for treatment-resistant cancers.

In South Africa, he collected the bush-willow tree, whose bark contains combretastatin A-1 and A-4, which are now being tested on cancers.

On the shallow reef off Mauritius, he collected sea hare, a mollusk, and isolated dolastatin 10, which led to the Seattle Genetis drug, Adcetris. He also developed a process to synthesize the compound to avoid using hundreds of tons of actual sea hare.

Overall, Pettit and his colleagues collected more than 14,000 marine species, as well as 3,000 plant species and 1,000 insect species. He attracted millions of dollars in funding. He founded the ASU Cancer Research Institute and designed its 60,000-square-foot building so a natural product could go in one end and a drug would come out the other.

He patented more than five dozen cancer-fighting compounds. A dozen drugs discovered by Pettit and his colleagues are currently in one phase or another of human cancer clinical trials. One is also in trials in ophthalmology, another is in a trial against Alzheimer’s disease, and trials are planned for a drug to fight pregnancy preeclampsia.

But in the late ’90s, relations started to sour between Pettit and the ASU administration. Exactly why is unclear. A 2007 investigative report in the Phoenix New Times alludes to personality conflicts and differences over the direction of intellectual property, patent policy, and licensing agreements.

In January of 2006, the university froze Pettit’s funds and fired 30 researchers in his lab. He was cut off from an endowment given specifically to him and denied access to his notebooks and thousands of samples. He was moved back into the lab he was given when he first arrived at ASU in 1965.

With litigation still in play, Pettit is guarded about discussing details. ASU doesn’t discuss the matter.

Whatever the circumstances, the Pettit-ASU conflict became a national model for nasty academic disputes, cited by the Wall Street Journal in a page one story headlined, “Ivory Power.” It’s also the ultimate acid test of Pettit’s doggedness.

It’s safe to say most of us would have cried uncle, quit, retired, or looked for work elsewhere. Then again, most of us wouldn’t comb the planet for various ancient life forms and probe them for compounds to test. Pettit acknowledges as much and says he stayed at ASU, where he is a tenured Regents professor, out of a commitment to his fellow researchers and the cancer victims he hopes to help.

It’s stressful, to be sure. But he has ways to deal with that.

“I run six miles every couple of days,” he says.

On the web

The perseverance of Bob Pettit: An article from the Phoenix New Times on his battle with Arizona State University over research