BYU's lawsuit against Pfizer over breach of contract heads to trial in May

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 5:58 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — After years of delays, Dr. Daniel Simmons, a longtime professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Brigham Young University, is about to get his day in court.

In October 2006, Simmons and BYU sued drug giant Pfizer, claiming the pharmaceutical company unfairly profited from his discovery and cheated the professor out of professional credit and compensation. The lawsuit involves potentially millions, perhaps even billions of dollars in royalties for BYU and has resulted in more than five years of legal wrangling.

The dispute revolves around the drug Celebrex, a revolutionary drug to treat arthritis and inflammation. The so-called “super-aspirin” blocks the COX-2 enzyme, reducing pain and inflammation without triggering the sometimes deadly gastrointestinal effects of some other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including aspirin. COX is scientific shorthand for the enzyme cyclooxygenase.

Back in 1991 and into 1992, Simmons and BYU had a research agreement with Monsanto, later acquired by Pfizer.

According to BYU, Dr. Simmons' research about the COX-2 enzyme was critical in the development of Celebrex, yet Monsanto ended the agreement, without including him or the university in the credit or compensation.

"The agreement was to share his discovery with the company and to share in any reasonable royalties that resulted from their collaboration,” BYU said in a prepared statement. “The company then used Dr. Simmons' work as a road map to develop the blockbuster drug Celebrex."

Pfizer claims the company met all of its obligations under the agreement. In a prepared statement it said, “Many years ago, Monsanto had a research agreement with BYU and Dr. Simmons, and the company met all of its obligations under the agreement. Years later, BYU and Dr. Simmons made unfounded allegations against Pfizer in an effort to capitalize on the company’s commercial success. The lawsuit has no merit.”

Brent Hatch, an attorney for Pfizer, said, "It's a big case and the judge was exceptionally well-prepared. He was very thorough in his questions. We're very much looking forward to receiving his decisions."

Judge Ted Stewart will rule on pretrial motions submitted Friday in anticipation of a May 29 trial date. Both sides will then take jurors down a road two decades in the making, unveiling documents, detailing science, and relying on expert witnesses and patent law to reach a decision. 

BYU officials previously said it worked for years to reach an agreement before heading to court, but to no avail. Pfizer was penalized in October 2009 for causing unnecessary delays in the case, and was ordered to pay BYU $825,315 for costs that included attorney fees.

The trial is scheduled to last six weeks.

E-mail: spenrod@ksl.com

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