A federal judge in Utah has issued a series of rulings that set the stage for a gigantic legal battle between Brigham Young University and Pfizer Inc. — potentially the largest civil trial in Utah history.
The rulings by U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart resolved legal questions in advance of the trial over BYU’s lawsuit that is scheduled to begin in late May. The Provo school claims that Pfizer reneged on a contract and misappropriated research from professor Daniel Simmons that led to the creation of the anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex, a “super aspirin” that is one of the most successful commercial drugs ever.
At stake are billions of dollars that BYU claims are owed it as compensation for Simmons’ contributions to the creation of Celebrex, which BYU says had sales of more than $33 billion. BYU says it is owed at least $9.25 billion in royalties from the Celebrex sales. Pfizer reported a profit of $8.7 billion last year.
Stewart’s rulings of the past two weeks have generally favored BYU, allowing it to bring its major allegations to a jury in a marathon trial scheduled to run for six weeks.
David Thomas, deputy general counsel at BYU, said the school was pleased that Stewart allowed the jury to hear evidence that Simmons should be listed as a co-inventor on patents that Pfizer obtained as part of its development of Celebrex.
“The ruling on Dr. Simmons’ co-inventorship claim is particularly gratifying because, if the jury embraces BYU’s evidence, Celebrex can become much more affordable,” he said in a statement.
A verdict favorable to BYU could allow other companies to make versions of Celebrex.
Pfizer spokesman Christopher Loder said the “rulings are not ultimate rulings on the merits of either party’s case. While the company is pleased with some of the recent rulings and disappointed by others, it remains confident that the evidence at trial will show this lawsuit has no merit.”
The lawsuit, filed nearly six years ago, contends that after Simmons came to BYU, he discovered a previously unknown enzyme. Starting in 1991, Simmons provided his research to Monsanto, which later was acquired by Pfizer, with the understanding Simmons would direct research into his COX-2 enzyme in order to create a commercial anti-inflammation product. BYU and Simmons were to share the patents and profits.
Instead, the suit alleges, Monsanto’s chief scientific officer, Philip Needleman, along with the company and its successors created a “COX-2 Project Enterprise” that appropriated the BYU professor’s research to create Celebrex and cut out the school and the BYU researcher.
Pfizer made it appear its own research led to the creation of the anti-inflammatory drug, even though it could not have done so without Simmons’ discoveries, the suit says.
“Dr. Simmons contracted with Pfizer’s predecessor, Monsanto, to share this discovery and provide biological materials,” Thomas said Tuesday. “Monsanto misappropriated those biological materials and used them to redirect its steroid research to the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory research that resulted in Celebrex, whose sales have exceeded $33 billion.”
Loder said Monsanto “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.”
What • A BYU lawsuit claims Pfizer misappropriated research of professor Dan Simmons
When • Trial scheduled to start May 29
Where • Federal courthouse, Salt Lake City
Length • At least six weeks
At stake • BYU claims it is owed at least $9.25 billion