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.

"Part of my prior experience is to look at technologies and find ways around them," Podolski said at one point during a recent interview. "This is if somebody else had a technology and we wanted to get to it. Well, now we have the technology."

Joe Podolski and Zonagen now have Bonnie Dunbar's technology. They didn't have to find some way around it, though. In fact, with Baylor College of Medicine on the lookout, they walked right in the front door and took it away from her.

If Dunbar can be blamed for anything, it's her failure to recognize sooner that she was getting screwed. But she refused to believe her employer wasn't on her side.

She couldn't believe that Sam Crocker, vice president of legal affairs, would follow Podolski's call with one to her department administrator, Marty Weick, the very next day. Even after she heard Weick's tape recording of the conversation, she couldn't believe Sam Crocker would subtly threaten her job simply because, "if we get into a situation that our scientists end up not being cooperative, we're going to be out of the business of setting up these companies and doing this stuff." Dunbar wouldn't have fingered Crocker as someone so misguided he would think Baylor College of Medicine's purpose in life was "doing this stuff."

Another true story about Sam Crocker that Dunbar didn't want to believe: In the summer of 1992, Dunbar was concerned about continuing the zona pellucida research. She called Crocker repeatedly, but the college's lawyer wouldn't call back. Finally, when he couldn't ignore her any longer, Crocker, an old man with a long history at Baylor College of Medicine, wrote her an excuse-laden letter, which he copied to Steve Banks at BCM Technologies, with a note at the bottom that said: "Howz about dis horseshit?"

Slowly, Bonnie Dunbar has accepted that the only chance she has of getting her career back is by suing Baylor College of Medicine, along with Zonagen and Fulbright & Jaworski. She doesn't want to do it, of course. She loves Baylor and has a high regard for her fellow scientists and researchers, whose work accounts for Baylor's reputation as one of the top medical schools in the country.

No doubt, Baylor's prestige would be significantly enhanced if Bonnie Dunbar perfected a human contraceptive vaccine while on the school's faculty. How close is she?

In 1995, Dunbar and Catherine VanderVoort, a biologist at the University of California at Davis, published results from a federally funded primate study that tested the effects of immunization with two distinct genetically engineered proteins isolated by Dunbar. One protein, called 75-kd ZP, had the desired effect of prohibiting sperm from binding to the zona pellucida, but interfered with the development of the primate's ovaries, as well as disrupting the ovarian cycle. However, the other protein, 55-kd ZP, worked without altering ovarian function, which, as the study concluded, "is desired for human immunocontraception."

That could be the last significant zona pellucida study Bonnie Dunbar conducts for a while. She's out of research money, and her chances of attracting grants decrease with each year that Zonagen owns her work. One morning last week, a farmer in Australia called and asked Dunbar for help in controlling the local wildcat population.

"I had to tell him," Dunbar recalls, "that I can't do anything. I'm not doing any research right now.' "

E-mail Brian Wallstin at brian_wallstin@houstonpress.com.

For more materials related to this story, go to www.houstonpress.com.

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