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FBI Charges Two Former Harvard Post-Docs With Conspiracy, Theft of IP and Reagents

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NEW YORK, June 19 - Two former Harvard Medical School researchers were arrested this morning in their San Diego homes by federal agents for allegedly stealing and selling overseas thousands of dollars worth of reagents and IP developed by Harvard.

 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation alleges that Jiangyu Zhu, 30, and Kayoko Kimbara, 32, stole technology developed at Harvard's Department of Cell Biology, where they worked as post-docs between 1997 and 1999.

 

The US Attorney in San Diego has charged the two researchers with conspiracy, theft of trade secrets, and interstate transportation of stolen property. If found guilty, they each face a maximum of 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

 

According to an affidavit filed with the US District Court in Massachusetts today, the FBI and a US Attorney say that Jiangyu and Kimbara stole data, technology, and reagents developed by Frank McKeon, the Harvard professor for whom they worked.

 

These biologicals, developed through NIH and American Cancer Society funds and bought but ultimately returned by a Japanese biochem company, are used to develop anti-rejection drugs and to study genes that regulate a potentially important enzyme.

 

Overnight shift

 

Jiangyu began working for McKeon in his lab in February 1997, about one year before Kimbara began her fellowship there. It was not immediately clear if the two researchers knew each other before Harvard.

 

Over the next two years Jiangyu and Kimbara discovered a pair of genes that encode proteins that bind to and block an enzyme believed to be critical to cardiac, neurological, and immunological function.

 

Soon after their discovery, the two scientists began working an overnight shift at the lab where, "without direct supervision," they were able "to conceal their activities" from McKeon and plot their crimes, according to the affidavit.

 

Fearing his post-docs were hiding findings from him, McKeon, who claims they discovered but kept under wraps seven additional genes, in October 1999 filed for a provisional patent to cover the two original genes.

 

Two months later, Jiangyu received an offer to work at the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Texas, San Antonio. The FBI says that one day after receiving the offer--and while still employed by Harvard--Jiangyu sent an e-mail to an undisclosed biochemical company in Japan in which he announced "his intent to collaborate with another researcher" to commercialize antibodies discovered through their research at Harvard.

 

The bureau goes on to say that Jiangyu, without McKeon's knowledge or authorization, sent three new genes to the Japanese company for the purpose of developing antibodies against them.

The FBI claims that by early the following year the Japanese company managed not only to produce the antibodies but that it also shipped them to Jiangyu at the University of Texas, where he and Kimbara had begun working in January.

 

Though McKeon's office did not return telephone calls seeking comment, the affidavit says that other staff in his lab observed that "significant amounts of biological material, equipment, and scientific documentation" had been missing.

 

In a January 2000 meeting with Harvard officials, including McKeon, Jiangyu and Kimbara denied stealing the reagents and data and said they never hid any data from their boss. But according to the complaint, early that summer Harvard had recovered "a significant percentage" of its materials from Jiangyu's and Kimbara's workspace at the University of Texas. However, "many of the materials allegedly taken" from McKeon's lab have not yet been recovered.

 

The Japanese company "cooperated fully" with the ongoing investigation and has returned all of the research data and products to Harvard. Jiangyu and Kimbara were not reachable for comment at deadline.

An attorney for the University of Texas Health Sciences Center said Jiangyu and Kimbara have not been employed by the Institute of Biotechnology for at least one year. According to the attorney, Jack Park, one "federal agent" came to the Institute during the winter to interview its staff. Park said the nature of the interview was not clear at the time. 

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