UMKC says pharmacy professor stole student’s research and sold it for millions

The case against a UMKC professor

Ashim Mitra, a longtime pharmacy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is accused of exploiting foreign students as “slave labor."
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Ashim Mitra, a longtime pharmacy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is accused of exploiting foreign students as “slave labor."

UMKC pharmacy professor Ashim Mitra stole a student’s research and sold it secretly to a pharmaceutical company, defrauding the university of millions of dollars, the University of Missouri alleges in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Mitra, the suit alleges, already has improperly reaped $1.5 million from the sale and has the potential of earning $10 million more in royalties over the next five years from what the university says could be a billion-dollar drug.

The suit said the money rightfully belongs to the university because the student who developed a new and more effective way to deliver drugs to the eye — through nanotechnology — did so while employed as a graduate research assistant at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

That former student, Kishore Cholkar, was among those that The Kansas City Star quoted last fall in an article regarding allegations that Mitra exploited foreign graduate students during his quarter century as head of the pharmaceutical sciences division at UMKC’s pharmacy school.

The students, all of them from India, said they believed Mitra might strip them of their visas if they did not agree to perform menial tasks at Mitra’s home, such as mucking out a wet basement and serving guests at social gatherings. Cholkar said he witnessed the behavior but was not among those who did such work.

However, he told The Star at the time that he felt abused in other ways. He’d worked with Mitra for several years on a research project, he said, but got no credit when the project headed toward market.

“That was my product, I worked day and night and yet my name was not included,” Cholkar said. “I was the only student who worked on that product. I put all my efforts into that product. I was cheated.”

Those comments were not included in the article. But Cholkar was among the students the university contacted at the time as part of the school’s continuing investigation into Mitra’s behavior.

Mitra announced his resignation last month without acknowledging wrongdoing. The suit said he officially leaves the university’s employment rolls on March 31.

He also denied the latest accusations contained in the lawsuit in a written statement he supplied to The Star on Tuesday night.

“The complaint I received earlier this afternoon from The Curators of the University of Missouri was unexpected and disappointing,” Mitra said, citing the legal name for the University of Missouri system. “All of the alleged wrongdoing on the part of myself and my wife can be proven to be false.”

Mitra’s wife, Ranjana, was among those named in the lawsuit as being part of the alleged conspiracy.

The court documents filed Tuesday in federal district court in Kansas City allege that Mitra sold Cholkar’s research to Auven Therapeutics Management, a pharmaceutical development company based in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which resold the invention to a company in India called Sun Pharmaceutical Industries for $40 million, plus ongoing royalties.

Based on what the suit called Cholkar’s “ground-breaking” work, Sun Pharmaceutical obtained approval last August from the Food and Drug Administration to market the patented formulation in a dry-eye drug called Cequa.

That milestone resulted in a $1 million payment to Mitra on top of previous payments for helping commercialize the drug, the lawsuit said. The money was deposited into his bank account in November, the suit alleges, on the same day that the Mitras met with UMKC officials and denied that they stood to benefit financially from the sale of the technology.

“All of this occurred without any disclosure to — let alone approval from — the university,” the lawsuit said. The university accuses Auven and Sun Pharmaceutical of avoiding any contact with UMKC so they wouldn’t have to share their profits with the school.

In addition to the Mitras, others named as defendants are the companies and their affiliates, as well as the Mitras’ company, Mitra Consulting Services Inc.

Mitra said in his statement that it is the university that is trying to cash in on his work now that the product he says he developed is coming to market.

“I can unequivocally prove that this invention was conceptualized and produced by myself and the rightful co-creators,” he wrote. “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. It is clear to see that both him and UMKC are now trying to reap the benefits of the tireless work myself and others have put in to make this a success.”

Cholkar did not immediately respond to phone messages left for him. UMKC issued a statement Tuesday night summarizing the 62-page complaint.

“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,” it said in part. “UMKC looks forward to vigorously pursuing these claims in court.”

The suit seeks to restore what the university claims are UMKC’s ownership interests in the drug, have Cholkar’s name assigned to the patent and have a court give the university declaration of ownership of Mitra’s interest in the intellectual property.

UMKC said it launched its investigation last fall into the alleged scheme to sell the university-owned invention. As the probe closed in, court documents allege the Mitras destroyed Cholkar’s notebooks and other documents linking the university’s research to the formulation behind Cequa.

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Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738
Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.