Millions could await UMKC pharmacy grad whose professor allegedly stole his invention

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."

A former University of Missouri-Kansas City graduate student stands to collect millions of dollars in royalties if the UM system can prove that the man’s professor stole his invention while both were at UMKC.

Kishore Cholkar deserves credit for the invention behind a new pharmaceutical product for treating eye conditions, according to UMKC. It could produce a billion dollars in revenue, the university claims in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Kansas City.

The university said Wednesday that Cholkar deserves to get a third of the money in current and future royalties, while UMKC and its parent, the University of Missouri system, would get the other two thirds.

That’s university policy, a UMKC spokesman said in an email. “Essentially, one third of the proceeds goes to the inventor(s) after recovery of litigation expenses,” the spokesman said.

Neither Cholkar nor the university has gotten a dime so far, the lawsuit alleges, because Cholkar’s former professor, Ashim Mitra, cheated them with the help of two pharmaceutical companies. According to court documents, the companies paid Mitra for the invention and his help getting Food and Drug Administration approval for it, while conspiring to cut UMKC and Cholkar out of their rightful shares.

Absent legal intervention, Mitra will collect $10 million in royalties over the next several years, the university says.

Mitra denies the allegations. He claims that he and the drug companies invented a novel delivery system for treating a condition called dry eye. He says he did so through his private consulting business rather than through his lab at UMKC’s School of Pharmacy.

“I can unequivocally prove that this invention was conceptualized and produced by myself and the rightful co-creators,” he said in a prepared statement Tuesday night.

“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 could not be reached for comment, but in an interview with The Star last fall he claimed the formulation was his invention and that Mitra denied him credit on the patent, even after delaying Cholkar’s graduation so that he could finish work on the research project.

“He says, ‘Do you want to graduate or do you want a patent?’ ” Cholkar said. The doctoral student considered that a threat and worried that Mitra would sabotage his graduation if he continued complaining about being left off the patent application.

“I didn’t graduate until 2015 because of this guy,” Cholkar said. “And then he did whatever he could to destroy me. I do not like this person.”

Cholkar is now a scientist at a California pharmaceutical company.

According to the university’s collected rules and regulations, all inventions and discoveries developed by its employees are the property of the university if their findings were done with support from the university.

They are responsible for informing and working through the university to commercialize their work product. Inventors are entitled to receive one third off the top of the proceeds from that commercialization. After reimbursing research costs, the other two thirds is split three ways.

Two thirds of that share goes to the UM campus where the discovery was made, with half of that earmarked for the school on campus where the invention originated. The rest goes to the UM system.

The lawsuit aims to strip Mitra of any claim to a share because he allegedly made a secret deal with two pharmaceutical companies — Auven Therapeutics Management and Sun Pharmaceutical Industries — and by doing so knowingly violated university policies. Sidney Weiss is the only other name on patents submitted as exhibits. The suit says Weiss was Mitra’s main contact at Auven Therapeutics, the drug development company Mitra allegedly sold Cholkar’s research to.

Auven, based in the U.S. Virgin Islands, then sold the intellectual property for $40 million to Sun Pharmaceutical, the India-based firm that worked to get a drug called Cequa approved by the FDA. Mitra received $1 million as his reward for helping achieve that milestone and $500,000 for the steps leading up to it.

Mitra submitted his resignation in January, effective March 31, during a proceeding to determine if there was cause for him to be dismissed. The university said it began investigating Mitra in May for misconduct, which led to his removal as chairman of the pharmacy school’s pharmaceutical sciences division.

In October, UMKC said it launched a formal disciplinary action against him. That began after The Star had begun its own investigation into allegations that Mitra had long exploited students by having them do menial chores at his home, serving guests at social functions and doing research work for his private business.

Cholkar was one of Mitra’s former students quoted in The Star’s article about Mitra’s alleged unprofessional treatment of them during his 25 years at the pharmacy school.

Two days after the article was published, UMKC suspended Mitra with pay. Two months later, he resigned.

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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.