US Cancer Centers Embroiled in Chinese Research Thefts

Alicia Ault

February 03, 2020

Academic cancer centers around the United States continue to get caught up in an ever-evolving investigation into researchers — American and Chinese — who did not disclose payments from or the work they did for Chinese institutions while simultaneously accepting taxpayer money through US government grants.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been ferreting out researchers it says have acted illegally.

On January 28, the agency arrested Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber and also unveiled charges against Zheng Zaosong, a cancer researcher who is in the United States on a Harvard-sponsored visa.

The FBI said Zheng, who worked at the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, tried to smuggle 21 vials of biological material and research to China. Zheng was arrested in December at Boston's Logan Airport. He admitted he planned to conduct and publish research in China using the stolen samples, said the FBI.

"All of the individuals charged today were either directly or indirectly working for the Chinese government, at our country's expense," said the agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office, Joseph R. Bonavolonta.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who has been pushing for more government action against foreign theft of US research, said in a statement, "I'm glad the FBI appears to be taking foreign threats to taxpayer-funded research seriously, but I fear that this case is only the tip of the iceberg."

The FBI said it is investigating China-related cases in all 50 states.

Ross McKinney, MD, the chief scientific officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), said he is aware of some 200 investigations, not all of which are cancer related, at 70 to 75 institutions.

"It's a very ubiquitous problem," McKinney told Medscape Medical News.

He also pointed out that some 6000 National Institutes of Health (NIH)–funded principal investigators are of Asian background. "So that 200 is a pretty small proportion," said McKinney.

The NIH warned some 10,000 institutions in August 2018 that it had uncovered Chinese manipulation of peer review and a lack of disclosure of work for Chinese institutions. It urged the institutions to report irregularities.

For universities, "the trouble is sorting out who is the violator from who is not," said McKinney. He noted that they are not set up to investigate whether someone has a laboratory in China.

"The fact that the Chinese government exploited the fact that universities are typically fairly trusting is extremely disappointing," he said.

Moffitt Story Still Unfolding

The most serious allegations have been leveled against six former employees of the Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, Florida.

In December 2019, Moffitt announced that the six — including President and CEO Alan List, MD, and the center director, Thomas Sellers, PhD — had left Moffitt as a result of "violations of conflict of interest rules through their work in China."

New details have emerged, thanks to a new investigative report from a committee of the Florida House of Representatives.

The report said that Sheng Wei, a naturalized US citizen who had worked at Moffitt since 2008 — when Moffitt began its affiliation with the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital — was instrumental in recruiting top executives into the Thousand Talents program, which Wei had joined in 2010, according to the report. These executives included List, Sellers, and also Daniel Sullivan, head of Moffitt's clinical science program, and cancer biologist Pearlie Epling-Burnette, it noted.

Begun in 2008, China's Thousand Talents Plan gave salaries, funding, laboratory space, and other incentives to researchers who promised to bring US-gained knowledge and research to China.

All information about this program has been removed from the Internet, but the program may still be active, McKinney commented to Medscape Medical News.

According to the report, List pledged to work for the Tianjin cancer center 9 months a year for $71,000 annually. He was appointed head of the hematology department ($85,300 a year) in 2016. He opened a bank account in China to receive that salary and other Thousand Talents payments, the report found. The report notes that the exact amount List was paid is still not known.

Initially, Sellers, who was the principal investigator for Moffitt's National Cancer Institute core grant, said he had not been involved in the Thousand Talents program. He later admitted that he had pledged to work in China 2 months a year for the program and that he'd opened a Chinese bank account and had deposited at least $35,000 into the account, the report notes.

The others pledged to work for the Thousand Talents program and also opened bank accounts in China and received money in those accounts.

Another Moffitt employee, Howard McLeod, MD, had worked for Thousand Talents before he joined Moffitt but did not disclose his China work. McLeod also supervised and had a close relationship with another researcher, Yijing (Bob) He, MD, who was employed by Moffitt but who lived in China, unbeknownst to Moffitt. "Dr He appears to have functioned as an agent of Dr McLeod in China," said the report.

The report concluded that "none of the Moffitt faculty who were Talents program participants properly or timely disclosed their Talents program involvement to Moffitt, and none disclosed the full extent of their Talents program activities prior to Moffitt's internal investigation."

No charges have been filed against any of the former Moffitt employees.

However, the Cancer Letter has reported that Sellers is claiming he was not involved in the program and that he is preparing to sue Moffitt.

AAMC's McKinney notes that it is illegal for researchers to take US government grant money and pledge a certain amount of time but not deliver on that commitment because they are working for someone else — in this case, China. They also lied about not having any other research support, which is also illegal, he said.

The researchers received Chinese money and deposited it in Chinese accounts, which was never reported to the US Internal Revenue Service.

"One of the hallmarks of the Chinese recruitment program was that people were instructed to not tell their normal US host institution and not tell any US government agency about their relationship with China," McKinney said. "It was creating a culture where dishonesty in this situation was norm," he added.

The lack of honesty brings up bigger questions for the field, he said. "Once you start lying about one thing, do you lie about your science too?"

Lack of Oversight?

McKinney said the NIH as well as universities and hospitals had a long and trusting relationship with China and should not be blamed for falling prey to the Chinese government's concerted effort to steal intellectual property.

But some government watchdog groups have chided the NIH for lax oversight. In February 2019, the federal Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General found that "NIH has not assessed the risks to national security when permitting data access to foreign [principal investigators]."

Federal investigators have said that Thousand Talents has been one of the biggest threats.

The US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations reported in November 2019 that "the federal government's grant-making agencies did little to prevent this from happening, nor did the FBI and other federal agencies develop a coordinated response to mitigate the threat."

The NIH invests $31 billion a year in medical research through 50,000 competitive grants to more than 300,000 researchers, according to that report. Even after uncovering grant fraud and peer-review manipulation that benefited China, "significant gaps in NIH's grant integrity process remain," the report states. Site visits by the NIH's Division of Grants Compliance and Oversight dropped from 28 in 2012 to just three in 2018, the report noted.

Widening Dragnet

In April 2019, Science reported that the NIH identified five researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, who had failed to disclose their ties to Chinese enterprises and who had failed to keep peer review confidential.

Two resigned before they could be fired, one was fired, another eventually left the institution, and the fifth was found to have not willfully engaged in subterfuge.

Just a month later, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, announced that it had fired a husband and wife research team. The neuroscientists were known for their studies of Huntington disease. Both were US citizens and had worked at Emory for more than 2 decades, according to the Science report.

The Moffitt situation led to the Florida legislature's investigation, and also prompted some soul searching. The Tampa Bay Times reported that US Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) asked state universities to provide information on what they are doing to stop foreign influence. The University of Florida then acknowledged that four faculty members resigned or were terminated because of ties to a foreign recruitment program.

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