A researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin has been charged with stealing a possible cancer-fighting compound and research data that led to its development, all to benefit a Chinese university. Huajun Zhao, 42, faces a single count of economic espionage, according to a federal criminal complaint, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Zhao was arrested Saturday and held without bail over the weekend pending a detention hearing in Milwaukee federal court on Monday, when he was ordered detained until trial. No date has been set.
According to the complaint, Zhao worked as an associate researcher at the college, assisting professor Marshall Anderson by conducting experiments in pharmacology. On Feb. 22, Anderson set down three pill bottle-size containers of a cancer research compound called C-25, and later noticed they were missing from his desk. After searching extensively for the bottles, he reported them lost or stolen on Feb. 26.
The next day, security video showed Zhao entering Anderson's office on Feb. 22, and leaving shortly after. No one else was seen entering the office on the videos. Security officials questioned Zhao, who didn't admit or deny taking the compound, but said he couldn't understand the questions, and that, regardless, everything would be resolved in 10 days.
The public safety manager of the college, Jessica Luedtke, contacted the FBI. She said Zhao had been disciplined months earlier for putting lab data on his personal computer. The college staff also discovered that on a professional researcher's website, Zhao claimed to have discovered a cancer-fighting compound that he wanted to bring back to China, where he had been from December till mid-February...The story only gets better:
On March 1, Zhao met with Anderson, college security and the FBI to go over his computer, hard drive and flash drive, where 384 items related to Anderson's C-25 research were discovered and deleted. He also had some research from another professor in the Hematology/Oncology department, without permission.
Among Zhao's paperwork, investigators found more C-25 research and a grant application, written in Mandarin, claiming he had discovered the compound and seeking more Chinese funding to continue research. Anderson observed the application was identical to one he had submitted years earlier, in English.
During the same March 1 review, college security informed the FBI that after his suspension on Feb. 27, Zhao had remotely accessed the Medical College servers and deleted Anderson's raw data from the C-25 research, information the college was later able to restore.
Zhao denied stealing any research or deleting data, and again said he did not understand the questions, though his co-workers told investigators Zhao spoke excellent English and had lived in the United States several years. Finally, on Thursday, agents served a search warrant at Zhao's apartment and recovered a receipt for a package he sent to his wife in China on Feb. 28, the day after he was suspended from the Medical College.
They also found that Zhao had purchased, on Feb. 3 and Feb. 17, identical airline tickets to China from Chicago for April 2. Asked about C-25, a spokeswoman for the Medical College said "it is being studied to see if it can assist cancer drugs in killing cancer cells and not damaging 'normal' cells," but declined further comment on the case.
According to Zhao's LinkedIn page, he has worked at the Medical College of Wisconsin since August 2011, and before that spent four years at the University of Cincinnati as a postdoctoral fellow doing breast cancer research. From December 2006 to July 2007 he did cancer research at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa.The headline should really read: "
Assuming that this report is complete (unlikely) and that the actions of Dr. Zhao are accurately described (probably true), it seems fairly clear that he was up to no good. It seems to me that this was a fairly run-of-the-mill example of the Money part of the MICE (Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego) explanation for why people conduct espionage. Assuming the case doesn't fall apart, he's headed for prison; they don't joke about federal trials being long guilty pleas for nothing.
Here's the funny thing, though: Would it not have been better to let Dr. Zhao go, and see how far he could get in China with stolen IP? Why openly burn him when you could see how the Chinese system works and whether or not Zhejiang University (where Dr. Zhao seemingly obtained an assistant professor slot and not a insignificant school, I note) would have found him out and thrown him out? Sigh; the FBI is not known for its creative thinking.
UPDATE 11182013: Changing some language in the post to remove negative comments.