Sunday, September 25, 2005

Patent policy, misconduct part of Pettit lawsuit against Arizona State University

George Robert Pettit, professor at Arizona State University and holder of over 60 patents, has filed suit against the university in a dispute over patent policy and possible retaliation against Petit for criticizing school patent policy.

Pettit said he was fired from his position as director of the Cancer Research Institute in July, 2005. Petit had charged that associate professor Yung Chang had submitted faulty patent applications that were based on flawed experiments. Chang had applied for them under Pettit’s name, putting Petit and other scientists at risk of federal fraud charges and placing the public’s health at risk. However, a university investigation determined Petit had made false statements about the associate professor Chang to ruin her reputation. Pettit alleges the firing actually was in retaliation for his efforts to expose poor management and potentially faulty patents.

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.

Aspects of the lawsuit bring up the "big business" face of the Bayh-Dole Act. Recall that the act has a preference for the licensing by universities to small businesses. That purpose is subverted when the small business sublicenses the technology to large businesses.

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. [Here, the nominal complaint was that the university did not share in the sublicense. Maybe the American taxpayer should be a bit concerned about this. The American taxpayer paid for the research funds for a drug that went to big business. Had the research failed, the taxpayer would have been stuck with the loss, but when the research succeeded the taxpayer got nothing. Citizens in California have been worried about this aspect in the stem cell initiative.]

Here, the university also got stuck with legal bills as ASU and Oxigene ended up in a legal dispute that cost the university $170,000. Not as much as the University of Rochester paid for the ill-fated COX-2 litigation.

The Petit lawsuit also implicates patent policy at Arizona State.
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.

The lawsuit also implicates the Arizona whistleblower statute. 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 interpretation of Pettit's actions against Chang are also part of this. [As an aside, recall Lucent/Bell Labs immediately withdrew Jan-Hendrik Schon's patent applications after fraud was uncovered.]


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