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TOUGH TO SWALLOW

CU WAGES A DRUG WAR OVER THE PRENATAL VITAMIN MATERNA.

In 1972, when Nixon was in the White House and the notion of a black hole first was conceived, two promising young scientists met and became close friends. One was an academic who went into university research. The other worked for a huge drug company. Over the years, both rose to the top of their professions.

Today the two men reportedly aren't speaking and sit at the center of a dispute that could be worth more than $100 million.

The academic is Robert Allen, a physician and researcher at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. Fifteen years ago, after nurturing a close relationship with friend and fellow scientist Leon Ellenbogen, Allen was hired by Ellenbogen.

His job was to perform a series of studies for Ellenbogen's employer, which manufactured a popular iron supplement for pregnant women called Materna. At the time, the company, American Cyanamid, was responding to charges that Materna didn't work as well as advertised. (It didn't, as it turned out.) Although he was still working for the university, Allen and his colleagues were paid tens of thousands of dollars for their work.

Recently, the University of Colorado has dredged up the past. That's because the school says that at the conclusion of those studies a decade and a half ago, Ellenbogen swiped the fruits of the professor's work. Among other charges, CU claims that Ellenbogen went so far as to "cut and paste" tables and graphs from an article Allen published on the subject. Since then, the university claims, American Cyanamid has earned nearly $100 million off a new and improved Materna--money that CU now claims rightfully belongs to it.

In the year and a half since it was filed, the lawsuit has become increasingly bitter and complex. Much of it may hinge on an elusive document that has come to be known as the Mystery Memo. The case could be decided as early as this week, when a federal judge is scheduled to either name a winner or let it proceed toward a trial.

CU stands to earn millions of dollars from the litigation. But in deciding to exhume a decade-old incident, the university has raised some uncomfortable questions about itself. The dispute between CU and American Cyanamid, for example, lays bare the overclose relationships and blurry lines of idea ownership that can develop when public-employee professors conduct research for private corporations.

Also, compared with other universities, CU has been a latecomer to the game of transferring technology from its labs to the market. The recent lawsuit shows what happened when CU caught a glimpse of a potential gold mine that it missed a decade ago.

Repeated attempts to interview Allen and Ellenbogen have been unsuccessful. Lawyers representing the University of Colorado and American Cyanamid Company decline to permit their clients to speak, citing the ongoing legal battle. But numerous court documents and interviews suggest that until recently the two scientists were colleagues, even close friends.

Allen, a native of Detroit, attended college in Massachusetts and received his medical degree from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. After winning several fellowships around the country he returned to the Missouri university as a fellow and then as an assistant professor.

In 1972 he met Leon Ellenbogen, who had spent most of his working life at American Cyanamid. Today Ellenbogen, who lives in New Jersey, has worked for more than four decades for the drug company, where he holds the title of chief nutritionist.

The two "became good friends who trust one another," according to court testimony. Ellenbogen became acquainted with Allen's wife and children, eating dinner at their Denver home numerous times. When it came time for Ellenbogen's son to apply for medical school, Allen wrote a letter of recommendation for him.

Despite their divergent career paths--Allen in academia and Ellenbogen in private industry--the men cultivated a close intellectual relationship. They "often exchanged scientific articles with one another, including occasions where one would send his confidential pre-publication manuscript to the other," court documents say.

More than exchanges of research, however, they enjoyed a business relationship. For instance, legal filings note that Ellenbogen "periodically sent valuable raw material, free of charge, to Dr. Allen for Dr. Allen's laboratory" at CU. For his part, "Dr. Allen performed numerous medical studies for Cyanamid at Dr. Ellenbogen's request," for which Allen and his colleagues were well-paid. Several of those studies dealt with a vitamin supplement for pregnant women called Materna.

Materna was, and is, manufactured by Lederle Laboratories, a division of American Cyanamid Company, a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant that in 1993 employed 26,500 people and had sales of $4.25 billion. The prescription vitamin supplement, which currently costs about $12 for a bottle of thirty pills, has been sold since the early 1970s, and its advertised function is to help expectant mothers get enough iron.

In the late 1970s, a competitor, Stuart Pharmaceutical, which makes Stuartnatal, another iron supplement, challenged Materna's effectiveness. The rival company suggested in an advertising campaign that the iron a woman absorbed by taking Materna was less than she would get by taking Stuartnatal.

Initially, according to internal correspondence between officials at American Cyanamid, Ellenbogen doubted this was true. But he decided to check out the claims nevertheless. The man Ellenbogen settled on for the project was Robert Allen.

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