This article has been updated from an earlier version. It contains interviews and adds details throughout.
NEW YORK, June 19 - At a time when most of their peers and supervisors were home for the holidays, Jiangyu Zhu and Kayoko Kimbara were hatching a plan to rob Harvard Medical School, according to a federal affidavit.
Working the overnight shift at a lab in Building C1 at the school's Department of Cell Biology two years ago, the post-docs conspired to steal data, reagents, and other biotechnology and ship them cross country, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. From their new base at the University of Texas, the researchers would sell their loot across three continents.
They came close to pulling off their scheme, according to a complaint filed by the FBI yesterday. The two managed to sell data and reagents to a Japanese biochem company, which used those data to develop novel antibodies.
Yesterday morning, though, FBI agents paid Jiangyu and Kimbara a visit at their San Diego homes and charged the couple with conspiracy, theft of trade secrets, and interstate transportation of stolen property. The two are now in a jail cell awaiting a bail hearing scheduled for Monday. If convicted, they each face a maximum of 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.
According to the affidavit, the FBI and a US Attorney say that Jiangyu, 30, and Kimbara, 32, "knowingly and with the intent to injure Harvard" stole data, technology, and reagents used to screen genes and proteins developed by professor Frank McKeon.
These tools, developed with the help of NIH and American Cancer Society funds, are used to develop anti-rejection drugs and to study genes that regulate a potentially important enzyme.
Jiangyu, a Chinese national, began working for McKeon in his lab in February 1997, about one year before Kimbara, who holds Japanese citizenship, began her fellowship. Soon the pair, which the FBI believes was romantically linked at the time, discovered a pair of genes that encode proteins that bind to and block a potentially lucrative enzyme.
Not long after that the pair 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 in October 1999 filed for a patent to cover the two original genes. According to the FBI he had reason to be suspicious.
McKeon, frustrated with being unable to get a straight answer from his two night-owl staffers, took matters into his own hands, the complaint said. After reviewing the results of several DNA sequences conducted for Kimbara and returned to the lab, McKeon confirmed his hunch that Jiangyu and Kimbara were keeping potentially important findings from him. In fact, McKeon eventually learned that the pair's clandestine research had yielded as many as seven additional genes. Citing the continuing investigation and the pending trial, McKeon declined to comment.
Two months later, Jiangyu received an offer to work at the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Texas, San Antonio. In its affidavit, the FBI said 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 complaint also states that Jiangyu said McKeon's patent application would fail.
The bureau goes on to say that Jiangyu, without McKeon's knowledge or authorization, sent the two original genes and one of the batch of seven new genes to the Japanese company, which made short order of putting its new acquisition to good use: By early the following year it managed not only to produce antibodies based on the first two genes but that it also shipped them to Jiangyu at the University of Texas' Department of Molecular Medicine, where he and Kimbara had begun working in January.
But by January 2000, Jiangyu's and Kimbara's luck was running out. As other lab staff began returning to work after the extended winter holiday they began to notice that certain parts of the lab appeared strange, that the lab was somehow not as it was when they left in late December.
The noticed that "significant amounts of biological material, equipment, and scientific documentation was missing," according to the affidavit, and that some 20 boxes were missing. Investigators later learned these boxes were used by Jiangyu and Kimbara to transport the products of their scheme across country. The staff also noticed that "many of the items left in the lab by [Jiangyu and Kimbara after they resigned] had been mislabeled or otherwise corrupted."
On Jan. 11, four days before they were to start their new careers at the University of Texas, Jiangyu and Kimbara met with Harvard officials, including McKeon. At the meeting, which sources said led the university to tip off federal investigators, the scientists denied their boss' accusations and said they never hid any data from him. However, according to the complaint, early that summer Harvard recovered "a significant percentage" of its materials from the scientists' workspace at the University of Texas. Still, "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.
In a statement, Harvard said: ''The mission of Harvard Medical School is to pursue scientific research to end human suffering caused by disease. Matters of this kind are very serious."
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.