Biological Disaster

Zonagen Inc. took its name from Bonnie Dunbar's groundbreaking research into contraceptive vaccines. Then, when she wasn't looking, the company took her research.

On the afternoon of October 7, 1987, Dr. Bonnie Dunbar nervously paced the sidewalk in front of 1301 McKinney.

Upstairs, in the offices of Fulbright & Jaworski, attorneys were putting the final touches on her application for patent protection of a specific protein clone that, when injected, inhibits fertility in certain mammals. The patent application --under the title, "Method of Preparation and Use for Zona Pellucida Antigens and Antibodies for Sterilization and Contraception" -- was the culmination of nearly 20 years of research by Dunbar, a professor of cell biology at Baylor College of Medicine.

If awarded, the patent would also boost the fortunes of Zonagen, Inc., a small biotechnology outfit formed in 1987 by Dunbar, Baylor and a group of investors that included Ross Perot and Lloyd Bentsen III, son of the former treasury secretary. The company hoped to market Dunbar's invention as a nonsurgical method of sterilizing dogs and cats. In the meantime, Zonagen would help Dunbar continue the pursuit of her life's work: the world's first contraceptive vaccine for humans.

As Dunbar's patent application was being prepared for shipment that afternoon, someone had overlooked a rather significant detail -- the actual clones, which had been isolated from a rabbit zona pellucida, the protein-rich shell that surrounds the ovarian egg of mammals. Dunbar called her laboratory and asked her technicians to package and deliver the clones to Fulbright & Jaworski.

As she awaited their arrival outside the law firm's offices, Dunbar was frantic. Many years, not to mention several million dollars' worth of painstaking scientific research, had gone into isolating these particular proteins. If something should happen to them, it would be like a death in the family.

"We were just desperate," Dunbar recalled recently. "We're lucky we didn't lose the whole deal, because if that shipment wouldn't have made it...."

As it happened, Bonnie Dunbar lost a great deal more that day, though it would be almost four years before she realized it. The clones did, in fact, survive their journey, and Dunbar was awarded a patent in February 1991. By then, however, the relationship between Dunbar and Zonagen's management team had collapsed, slowing progress on the animal sterilization vaccine.

In December 1991, Zonagen cut off funding to Dunbar's lab and severed its relationship with the scientist. Dunbar chalked it up to a learning experience and went back to her work on a human contraceptive vaccine.

Then, on January 20, 1993, Dunbar was working in her lab at Baylor when she received a telephone call from Joseph Podolski, Zonagen's president. Podolski demanded that Dunbar turn over all the files, laboratory notebooks and materials related to her vaccine research -- work she'd dedicated her life to since the early 1970s, largely with funding from the federal government and private foundations. When she refused, Podolski became angry and, according to Dunbar, threatened to ruin her career at Baylor.

"We own everything you have ever done and will ever do in connection with that technology," Podolski told her.

Podolski was right -- at least according to a series of agreements executed between Baylor College of Medicine and Zonagen in 1987 that gave the company exclusive rights to Dunbar's invention, as well as any subsequent research she performed on the zona pellucida.

Known as "technology transfer," such agreements have been common since 1980, when federal law began encouraging collaboration between the academic and business worlds to make scientific research available to the global marketplace. In exchange for the rights to develop the research, companies pay royalties or licensing fees that are typically divided between the university and the inventor.

Everyone's a winner when technology transfer works: Scientists and universities are rewarded for sharing their research, new businesses and jobs are created to develop and market new inventions, and the public is treated to such innovations as Retin-A and the nicotine patch.

Unfortunately, none of those things resulted from the transfer of Dunbar's contraceptive-vaccine technology to Zonagen, Inc. But this story is not simply about what happens when technology transfer doesn't work; that would imply that something relatively benign is to blame, such as the inevitable clash of values between profit-oriented businesspeople and altruistic, free-thinking scientists. If that were the case (and many times it is), the scientist would simply have been allowed to continue her research, and the businesspeople would have gone on to their next deal.

That's certainly been true of Zonagen. The company, which went public in 1993 with claims that a contraceptive vaccine was imminent, has generated considerable buzz on Wall Street with a "fast-acting, on-demand" impotence pill called Vasomax. Though the product has yet to receive approval for use in the United States, Zonagen has encouraged speculation that Vasomax could be the next Viagra, the impotence treatment that's become the fastest-selling drug ever. As a result, Zonagen stock has traded as high as $45 a share, and the company has a market capitalization of more than $226 million.

Bonnie Dunbar, on the other hand, never had a chance. Two of the city's most powerful institutions, Baylor College of Medicine and the law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski, converged on a preeminent reproductive biologist, helped Zonagen take what it needed to start up a business and left Bonnie Dunbar's career in ruins.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets