George R. Pettit

Pioneering Anti-Cancer Chemist to Receive WSU’s Highest Alumni Honor

George R. Pettit, an organic chemist who pioneered the search for anti-cancer compounds in marine organisms and terrestrial insects and plants, has been awarded the 2012 Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, WSU’s highest alumni honor.

The 1952 graduate (B.S., Chemistry) will be honored on Sept. 20 from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the Compton Union Building (CUB ) Auditorium at WSU Pullman, where he will deliver a free public address: “From the Indian Ocean to Global Clinics: Discovering new paths to improve cancer treatment.”

“Those who know of Bob Pettit consider him a pioneer, innovator, and simply a giant in the field of cancer drug discovery,” says Cliff Berkman, a WSU organic chemist who also works on anti-cancer agents. “More than anyone, Bob successfully translated his early fascination with nature’s creations to a professional career devoted to discovering and developing new drugs to battle nature’s most grievous of diseases.”

Over six decades, Pettit, 83, secured more than five dozen U.S. patents and several hundred foreign patents for anti-cancer compounds, while publishing more than a dozen books and about 800 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

Writing for Pettit’s nomination, Michael Boyd, director of the Mitchell Cancer Institute at the University of Southern Alabama, said Pettit “is at, indeed has established and defined, the cutting edge of his field. There is no other individual in the world who can claim anywhere near a comparable number of new anticancer compounds discovered and placed into preclinical or clinical drug development.”

Pettit’s fascination with potential natural cancer fighters dates to his days as a teenager on the New Jersey shore. He worked in a hospital pathology lab, where he first saw the ravages of cancer, while observing sea life in tide pools and noting that various creatures never seemed sick, let alone afflicted with cancer. Somewhere in those creatures, he reasoned, could be anti-cancer compounds evolved over millions of years.

After earning master’s and doctoral degrees at Wayne State University, Pettit launched systematic searches for anti-cancer substances in marine animals, plants, and microorganisms, beginning with fungi when he was on the faculty at the University of Maine.  Over a quarter-century, he and colleagues at Arizona State University, where he is a Regents’ Professor, collected more than 3,000 plant species, some 1,000 insect species, and more than 14,000 marine species. In lieu of vacations, he, his wife and five children collected specimens from Mexico to Alaska.  One of his sons was his diving partner on expeditions to such places as Micronesia, the Coral Sea and the coast of Papua New Guinea.

A dozen drugs discovered by Pettit and his Arizona State colleagues are currently in phase 1 to phase 3 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.

One of Pettit’s early marine-based leads, bryostatin 1, has undergone nearly 100 trials. It received FDA orphan drug approval for esophageal carcinoma in conjunction with Taxol.

Some of his discoveries have involved major innovation. Early clinical trials for dolastatin would have required some 700 tons of the source material, the mollusk sea hare. Pettit developed a process to synthesize the material so enough of it could be developed for the trials.

“Bob Pettit’s career arc and achievements are truly phenomenal,” WSU’s Berkman says.  “Now here at WSU, where his academic career began, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to both celebrate his remarkable accomplishments and share his story to inspire a future generation of scientists primed to tackle the most important issues facing human health.”

Since 1962, the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus/a Award has honored individuals who have made significant contributions to society and, through their accomplishments, brought attention to the quality of a Washington State University education. Recipients have included U.S. ambassadors, doctors, educators, business leaders, scientists, journalists, athletes, authors, and others.