Friday, January 3, 2020

Chinese researcher pulled off Boston plane with medical research samples

Via the New York Times, this rather interesting story about a researcher (postdoc?) at Beth Israel Hospital who was detained by the US government:
Zaosong Zheng was preparing to board Hainan Airlines Flight 482, nonstop from Boston to Beijing, when customs officers pulled him aside. 
Inside his checked luggage, wrapped in a plastic bag and then inserted into a sock, the officers found what they were looking for: 21 vials of brown liquid — cancer cells — that the authorities say Mr. Zheng, 29, a cancer researcher, took from a laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. 
Under questioning, court documents say, Mr. Zheng acknowledged that he had stolen eight of the samples and had replicated 11 more based on a colleague’s research. When he returned to China, he said, he would take the samples to Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital and turbocharge his career by publishing the results in China, under his own name....
Presuming this is what it looks like, I can't really feel very sorry for Mr. Zheng. Outside of ethics and morality, if you steal something, being caught within federal law enforcement jurisdiction is really dumb. (Here's a redacted copy of the affidavit, apparently.)

It is rather shocking to me how heavily federal law enforcement seems to be taking (waves hands wildly) the acquiring/stealing (?) of scientific work product from the United States in the life sciences. I think it's pretty reasonable to really crack down on industrial IP theft from the US (i.e. this is material that someone is already making money on), but the taking of random samples from biology labs? It's really hard to believe any one (or 21) vials are worth anything.

Still, a story like this will encourage those who are being dumb about stealing stuff (like this guy) to be a little smarter or perhaps not to do it. Not an altogether bad thing. 

11 comments:

  1. Nothing will happen! This will continue and be prepared to be surprised as is unfolding in the area 5G(Huawei) and CAR-T technology! Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice...

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    1. Seriously, man, do you really think the US has 5G technologies for other people to steal?

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  2. Why are you discounting the potential value of the samples? It is possible the handling would make no longer viable however the chosen samples did not seem random based on the acknowledgement statement. While I believe the Chinese Government may actively sponsor Industrial espionage to promote and circumvent IP the greed factor of individuals is high and can be applied to everyone, Chinese and otherwise, as no doubt pharmaceutical spying existing with in US companies.

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    1. "he would take the samples to Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital and turbocharge his career by publishing the results in China, under his own name...."

      If they were of actual monetary value as opposed to intellectual/scientific value, he wouldn't be publishing the results?

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  3. I think this is a very serious issue. Would you want your ideas/results/hard work to be stolen and appropriated by another individual?

    For me, it's less about the country of where the stolen research ends up and more about just research being stolen in general. This dude is a total a$$hole and deserves to have his career completely destroyed by his shtty behavior. I feel like science hinges on integrity, and when integrity disappears there is no hope for anyone.

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    1. Why are you even in science then? Academic science is full of irreproducible results due to fraud, because grad students/post-docs/faculty want to get a decent job/make a lot of money/ earn respect from family, and cant deal with how difficult it is to get publishable results. Cheating is now normal.

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  4. TSA screen checked luggage and any collection of vials hidden in a sock is guaranteed to grab their attention. I have no idea what he was thinking.

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  5. Back then, there was the Erbitux story, a similar tale of treachery and villainy. It certainly didn't help Dr Zheng that Oceania is currently at war with Eastasia.

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  6. I think this is becoming a much larger issue that the NIH is becoming more and more concerned with. I know we (at my university) have undergone more training regarding communicating with non-US non-collaborators when it comes to NIH funded research. Not sure this is why the crack-down was as strong as it appears. But, it may be more to do with hidden vials with a brown liquid on a plane than the stolen cells.

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    1. To add to that, some expensive equipment in my lab was purchased with an NIH grant, and when the grant was issued it was expressly stipulated that no non-US lab members were allowed access to the equipment. This equipment is commercially available, so it wasn't some kind of IP concern.

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    2. Academic scientists are going to rightly eyeroll at legitimate national security concerns after the Canadian undergrad wasn't allowed to use the IR spectrometer because "national security."

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