The University of Missouri on Tuesday sued a professor who has been accused of exploiting student labor, alleging he defrauded the university of at least $1.5 million by stealing a student’s research and selling it.
The suit, filed in federal court in Kansas City, accuses UMKC pharmacy professor Ashim Mitra of stealing a more effective formulation to deliver drugs to the eye from one of his graduate students, Dr. Kishore Cholkar.
“Dr. Mitra took Dr. Cholkar’s research and work on this invention, which was conducted at UMKC as part of Dr. Cholkar’s duties while employed by the University as a graduate research assistant, and secretly sold Dr. Cholkar’s research and related inventions to a pharmaceutical development company, Auven Therapeutics,” the suit states.
“Then, Dr. Mitra and Auven patented the formulation without naming Dr. Cholkar as an inventor and without getting approval from the University. Auven then purported to sell all of the intellectual property for a $40 million payment, as well as ongoing royalties, to Sun Pharma, a large multi-national pharmaceutical conglomerate.”
The complaint goes on to state that Sun Pharma recently received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to sell the patented formulation in a dry-eye drug that is expected to compete in a multi-billion dollar market.
The suit accuses Mitra of acting in secret, without university approval.
Besides Mitra, the 61-page suit names as defendants Mitra’s wife, the couple’s consulting business and the drug companies said to have benefited from the alleged scheme.
In a statement to KCUR, Mitra called the lawsuit “unexpected and disappointing.”
“All of the alleged wrongdoing on the part of myself and my wife can be proven to be false,” Mitra said, adding that he could “unequivocally prove” that Cholkar's investion "was conceptualized by myself and the rightful co-creators.”
“Dr. Kishore Cholkar is an accomplished student of mine who wrote a paper on other aspects of the Cyclosporine formulation after the patent had already been submitted to the FDA for approval,” Mitra said. “It is clear to see that both him and UMKC are now trying reap the benefits of the tireless work myself and others have put in to make this a success.”
John Martellaro, a spokesman for UMKC, said in a statement that the lawsuit was part of the school's ongoing investigation into Mitra's conduct. He said the probe began last May and resulted in Mitra's removal as department chair and a formal disciplinary action against him.
“The lawsuit filed today claims that Mitra stole UMKC-owned inventions, sold them to industry, assisted those companies in patenting and commercializing them, denied credit to a deserving student and reaped a personal financial windfall – all the while concealing his efforts and denying his involvement. UMKC looks forward to vigorously pursuing these claims in court,” Martellaro said.
The Kansas City Star reported last year that Mitra, over the course of his 25-year career at UMKC, had pressured Indian students into performing domestic chores for him, on pain of losing their visas. Mitra is from India.
Citing court documents, The Star said that the university not only knew about Mitra's conduct but overlooked student complaints because Mitra was a major conduit of research money for the school.
Mitra submitted his resignation in January. His final day at the university is March 31, according to the lawsuit.
The 16-count suit seeks to have the university declared the lawful owner of the patents at issue and unspecified damages.
KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.