MILWAUKEE — When three vials of a possible cancer-fighting compound disappeared recently from a professor’s desk at the Medical College of Wisconsin, suspicion quickly fell on a research assistant who had been working in the scientist’s lab.
Security video showed Hua Jun Zhao, who studied in China and whose wife lives there, was the only person who entered the professor’s office that day. Investigators later found research results from another professor on Zhao’s computer.
Zhao has been charged in a federal complaint with economic espionage, accused by prosecutors of stealing academic research to pass off as his own in China. Prosecutors said he hoped to study the compound and other materials at Zhejiang University, one of several Chinese schools that have been troubled by plagiarism, fraud and academic misconduct.
Zhao, 42, worked on a team led by professor Marshall Anderson, who is researching whether the compound can help kill cancer cells without damaging healthy ones, school spokeswoman Maureen Mack said. The compound is still being studied in a lab and has not yet advanced to clinical testing, she said.
The stolen vials of the C-25 powder are worth $8,000, the complaint said. Leonard Peace, an FBI spokesman in Milwaukee, said he couldn’t comment beyond what was in the complaint, except to confirm the vials had not been recovered.
Anderson noticed the vials missing on Feb. 22. School security video showed Zhao was the only person who entered Anderson’s office that day. Federal investigators questioned him about the vials on Feb. 27, but Zhao claimed he did not understand their questions, the complaint said. The school immediately placed him on administrative leave.
Zhao’s co-workers told the FBI that Zhao spoke excellent English and he had lived in the U.S. for many years. Mack declined to say how long Zhao worked at the school and would not provide details of his immigration status, referring questions to the FBI.
Zhao was arrested March 29 and charged with economic espionage, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. A judge on Monday ordered him held at Milwaukee County Jail until trial. No trial date has been set, but a preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 11.
Zhao’s public defender, Juval Scott, said it was too early to comment on the case.
“Right now I know that a talented professional has been accused of a serious crime,” she said in an email, “and our office looks forward to rolling up our sleeves and working on his behalf.”
Zhao traveled to China in December. Since his return in mid-February, he has claimed on his resume that he’s an assistant professor at Zhejiang University, the complaint said. Zhejiang University has had previous problems with theft. He Haibo, an associate professor in its College of Pharmaceutical Sciences, was fired in 2009 after it was discovered he had published papers with data stolen from a professor when he was a doctoral student at another Chinese university.
Academic plagiarism and fraud has been a problem in China, where some say professors are given an incentive to cheat because they’re often evaluated on the number, rather than the quality of papers published.
Mark Frankel, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s scientific responsibility, human rights and law program, said American universities are vulnerable to theft because there is a culture of openness. Scientists often share research in an effort to verify and reproduce each other’s discoveries, he said, adding that the risk also has become greater since the 1980s, as universities partner with companies on work that they plan to patent and market.
“As we begin to see that science [and] the knowledge that it creates can be translated into value, this whole notion of theft … began to populate the university environment,” Frankel said.
He recalled a flurry of thefts in the late 1990s and early 2000s but said he believes computer hacking, and data theft related to that, have become a greater problem in recent years.
Zhao allowed the medical college to copy files from his personal laptop, a thumb drive and an external hard drive after he was placed on administrative leave. Investigators found 384 files related to Anderson’s research, as well as research results from another professor from the school’s cancer department.
Among the files was a grant application to a Chinese foundation that Zhao wrote in Mandarin. In the application he said he discovered the C-25 compound and that he was seeking funding to continue his research in China. Anderson told investigators the application was a verbatim translation of a grant application he himself had written several years earlier in English.
School security staff told FBI agents that on the day of his suspension Zhao also accessed school computers remotely and deleted files related to the C-25 research. The college was able to recover the files. Zhao denied accessing the server or deleting files and said he didn’t understand the FBI agents’ questions.
Federal authorities subsequently searched Zhao’s home and found a receipt for shipment of a package to Zhao’s wife along with two airline tickets from Chicago to China leaving Tuesday, as well as an application to the National Natural Science Foundation of China for research funding for C-25.
Associated Press writer Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.