The Men Behind Zicam

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Like other scientific entrepreneurs, Robert Steven Davidson thought zinc might be a promising treatment for the common cold. But unlike many inventors of drugs, Davidson and his colleague Charles B. Hensley, who hold patents on Zicam, have unusual backgrounds.

Davidson received a bachelor's degree in 2004 from a "virtual" university, Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y. He lists himself as a PhD, a degree he obtained from an unaccredited and now-defunct university in Spain.

His colleague and co-inventor Hensley holds a doctorate in physiology from the University of Southern California and is currently chief executive officer of PRB Pharmaceuticals based in Cypress, Calif. Hensley recently received a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the sale over the Internet of an unapproved drug his company makes to treat bird flu. Hensley previously developed a weight-loss remedy that involves sniffing "specially developed aromas."

Davidson, who has contributed articles to Men's Fitness magazine, says his doctorate in biopharmaceutical project management and his MBA in international finance were earned at the American University of Asturias in Asturias, Spain, in the late 1990s. The school was closed in 2000 for violations of Spanish law, records show, and is considered a diploma mill by American authorities.

Davidson, who sold his interest in Zicam several years ago when he left to start another biotech firm, said he was unaware of any problems with the school in Spain. It is unusual to earn a doctorate before a bachelor's degree, he said in an interview, but his advanced degrees are legitimate. "I did work, a research paper and a dissertation."

He declined to discuss whether any safety questions arose during Zicam's development and testing.

Davidson said he met Hensley years ago at Cleveland Chiropractic College in Los Angeles, where he was taking classes and Hensley was a professor.

On Nov. 23, the FDA sent Hensley a letter about Vira 38, an antiviral compound marketed on PRB's Web site as effective in treating influenza, bird flu and SARS. The regulatory agency told Hensley he was violating federal law by selling an unapproved drug and warned that he and his company could face further legal action including "seizure of illegal products."

Hensley did not respond to e-mails or telephone calls.

-- Sandra G. Boodman

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