When Columbia Laboratories, a publicly traded pharmaceutical company based in Hollywood, Fla., began exploring new ways of delivering drugs, no one thought one little experiment to train new lab researchers would catapult the company into an entirely new line of business.

What Columbia came up with is a long-lasting chewing gum. Stuff you can chew for four or five hours and stick on your bedpost overnight. A far cry from the company's main business of developing women's health-care products.

"This is kind of strange," says vice-president and inventor Joseph Robinson, who gets more calls about the patented gum than about any other achievement of his scientific career.

"If we had set out to do it," says vice-president Howard Levine, "it probably would have taken three times as long." Instead, the gum may prove to be Columbia's most lucrative product. CEO Norman Meier is pursuing potential licensing deals with large gum manufacturers for a piece of their $2.5-billion market. And the company will explore ways to adapt the gum for sustained-release medication as well.

-- Anne Murphy