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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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April 2, 2013

Stealing A Compound, To Set Up in China

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Posted by Derek

Here's a strange case worth keeping an eye on. Via Deborah Blum's Twitter feed we have this report of a researcher in Wisconsin being charged with economic espionage - specifically, investigational oncology.

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. . .

. . .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.

Since his return, his résumé lists him as an assistant professor at Zhejiang University in China.

There's more evidence presented in the article. The professor involved works on mitochondrial apoptosis and on Nf-kappaB inhibitors, but I've been unable to find any publications on the "C-25" compound itself. None of Prof. Anderson's recent papers seem to have an "H. Zhou" or anything similar in the list of co-authors, so that doesn't narrow things down, either.

This is quite odd. People do indeed steal compounds by a variety of means, but it doesn't always work out very well. But those examples involve taking things from industrial labs - stealing an academic compound like this is presumably being done to advance one's own career, rather than being a path to direct wealth. According to the report, a grant application was found on Zhou's computer, claiming that he had discovered this compound and proposing funding for more studies. It does make you wonder what it is, and what sort of tenure-achieving, publication-spinning, grant-renewing powers it has. Or perhaps it really does have promising oncology activity, and Zhou pictured himself getting into the business? More details as they become available. . .

Comments (41) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Cancer | The Dark Side


1. D-Not on April 2, 2013 12:11 PM writes...

why not simply break the patent ? Big Pharma would look into ways of breaking the patent.

this looks more like personal animosity between anderson and the chinese scientist rather than espionage. Prof. Anderson might have "hindered" career development of this young researcher, which might have "triggered" the entire episode.

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2. anchor on April 2, 2013 12:16 PM writes...

@ 1...animosity, hinder? But, you do not bite the hand that feeds you! Irrespective of that Andersen dude did (speculation) it is wrong of that Chinese guy to do what he did! No excuse(s).

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3. anchor on April 2, 2013 12:17 PM writes...

@ 1...animosity, hinder? But, you do not bite the hand that feeds you! Irrespective of that Andersen dude did (speculation) it is wrong of that Chinese guy to do what he did! No excuse(s).

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4. anchor on April 2, 2013 12:18 PM writes...

@ 1...animosity, hinder? But, you do not bite the hand that feeds you! Irrespective of that Andersen dude did (speculation) it is wrong of that Chinese guy to do what he did! No excuse(s).

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5. Anonymous on April 2, 2013 12:25 PM writes...

i was shocked until i read his name

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6. D-Not on April 2, 2013 12:28 PM writes...

@ anchor -- agree with you about the Wrongdoing" by the Chinese guy".

Put this in perspective though.

1. Prof does not help "further" your career for some reason or the other.
2. when it becomes obvious to you -- when all approaches fail and you make the choice to "return to China once and for-ever".

3. the chinese guy must have thought -- why not take a parting shot and .... do what he did eventually. he could have considered other stealthier options rather than "blatantly steal".

4. anderson is crying foul now. he hopes that by making a significant stink -- the scientific community will indict the chinese scientist.

not condoning one or the other here. I think both of them deserve fault and should resolve this privately rather than air it publicly. this is petty personal affair.

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7. Curt F. on April 2, 2013 12:54 PM writes...

@ 1. D-Not

Emphases in the quotes below are mine:

Prof. Anderson might have "hindered" career development of this *young* researcher

Huajun Zhao, *42*, faces a single count of economic espionage, according to a federal criminal complaint

Thanks for the chuckle.

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8. Movie Buff on April 2, 2013 1:29 PM writes...

The 42 Year Old Postdoc... starting Steve Carrell

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9. D-not on April 2, 2013 1:34 PM writes...

Steve Carrell is too genial. lets go with Jet Li.

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10. archie on April 2, 2013 1:48 PM writes...

@6. D-Not

I see nothing in the article to justify your wild speculation that the prof "deserves fault" and must have had it coming for some reason. Seems to me that this Zhao has left the authorities with no option - apart from charging him under the law, how else are they meant to stop him buggering off back to China with their research project?

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11. Sam on April 2, 2013 2:02 PM writes...

Um... did I miss something here? Is it really not possible that Zhao has actually been the person doing all the work of developing this compound independently in Anderson's lab? Especially as a postdoc? (42 is the average age for first R01 in biology, folks).

Not to say I don't believe it could have been outright theft, either, but I suspect the truth is murkier...

And since when it is not ok to put lab data on a personal computer in an academic setting? I was always expected to supply my own laptop to do my job.

I recall a story of a coworker... There was postdoc-PI altercation where the PI claimed the postdoc was "stealing" reagents and managed to ruin the postdoc's career (he was on his way out to start his own lab). Essentially they disagreed on what he was allowed to take with him from his own project. The PI was threatened by the potential for competition, unwilling to relinquish the project, and the university backed him up. The case went to court and everything. The postdoc, meanwhile, stopped doing research entirely after he lost his tenure-track offer.

Seems like a lose-lose-lose to me, since the disagreement could've been solved if the PI had more ideas for things to work on.

As if there is a shortage of hard problems in need of creative solving.

Or maybe this stuff just happens more often on the biology side of the world.

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12. rg0p on April 2, 2013 2:23 PM writes...

D-Not's "speculation" that the prof deserves some fault, is based on something that s/he knows about this situation and we don't, perhaps???

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13. weirdo on April 2, 2013 2:33 PM writes...

There is no -- repeat, no -- evidence in any of the reports that I have read that suggests the PI did anything improperly. Except put vials of a potential drug on his "desk".

Suggestions to the contrary seem . . . um, biased? Racist, maybe?

What we have is a report of vials missing, videotape of an individual transiting the area where the vials were kept, and then . . . conveniently not being able to understand spoken English.

(And, no, storing laboratory data on one's personal computer was never allowed nor expected in any lab in which I worked.)

What am I missing?

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14. Former froglet on April 2, 2013 2:35 PM writes...

At #11. Was that incident to do with securin/pds1?

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15. The Aqueous Layer on April 2, 2013 2:50 PM writes...


Did the folks who are pseudo defending the researcher and somewhat blaming the PI actually read that entire article, or are you so cynical that you believe every professor is a d-bag who drives his underlings to commit crimes?

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.

Does this sound like the normal actions of a post-doc? Wonder what was in that package?

According to his LinkedIn profile, he'd been at MCW for a little over a year, and the article claimed that he was assisting the PI with pharmacological studies of the compound in question. Sounds to me as if he was running experiments for the PI, not the guy who discovered this compound.

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16. Kenny on April 2, 2013 3:02 PM writes...

I expect this kind of casual racism from some of the other bloggers (and commenters) but not from here. Just because the guy has a name like "Zhao", he recently spent time in China, he has a job offer from a Chinese university and he deflects legal inquiries by saying he doesn't understand English, you all assume he's Chinese. What, because they all steal things? Really, I'm appalled.

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17. rg0p on April 2, 2013 3:24 PM writes...

@Kenny, If you look carefully, there is only ONE (#5) comment that smacks of racism. Actually, there are quite few defending the researcher...

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18. Esteban on April 2, 2013 3:29 PM writes...

@16: I think your post is in jest, but I'm not completely sure.

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19. John Schilling on April 2, 2013 3:44 PM writes...

Not being a med-chemist I have to ask: What is the value of stealing three "pill bottle size" containers of the physical compound? The other cited examples of compound-stealing seem to have involved stealing relevant data, e.g. structure and synthesis. I can see how one could imagine making a profit from that.

But if you've got the structure and synthesis, it seems to me you don't need the physical stuff. And if you've got access to the PI's office, it seems to me you can probably copy the structure and synthesis without anyone being the wiser, at least until you go into production in China.

So, what's the deal? Is three bottles of pills enough to get a substantial head start on screening or clinical trials while you simultaneously set up your own production capability? Is it plausible that Zhao couldn't get access to the relevant data but could reasonably expect to reverse-engineer the compound from just a sample? Is he greedy and stupid?

In my line of work, a tale like this would seem like movie-plot espionage concieved by a writer who didn't know better, and I'd be suspicious if someone told it to me as a True Story(tm). But, as I say, I'm not a medical chemist, and things might work different there.

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20. D-Not on April 2, 2013 3:53 PM writes...

@ John Schilling. You're insight is spot-on.

Zhao could have easily had the cpd made in China. Zhao also has a PhD (I assume). So give him the benefit of the doubt -- he is not stupid.

Lets be straight -- there is some personal bad blood between Zhao and Anderson. This is a personal petty matter.

I would even go so far as to suggest that Anderson "framed" Zhao by putting those bottles of compound "in plain sight of a video camera" -- and poor Zhao took the bait.

an attorney should look into this and possibly take legal action against Anderson and the school.

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22. The Aqueous Layer on April 2, 2013 4:07 PM writes...

Sarcasm doesn't come across all the time on threads. Please someone tell me that's what post #20 was...

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23. metaphysician on April 2, 2013 4:13 PM writes...


If he "took the bait," then why should he *not* be prosecuted? Theft is still theft, even if someone left valuables exposed. "This other guy evilly tempted me" is not a valid defense.

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24. jasonp on April 2, 2013 5:24 PM writes...

"are you so cynical that you believe every professor is a d-bag who drives his underlings to commit crimes?"


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25. Esteban on April 2, 2013 6:01 PM writes...

@24: Not every prof is a d-bag, it's no more than 98% tops.

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26. wf on April 3, 2013 12:15 AM writes...

Anyway, it's hard to imagine a scientific espionage by stealing three pill bottle-size compounds and related pharmacological data in modern society. If the compound has not been patented, keep a little amount of solution during bio-assay to traceback the chemical ingredient will be more cleverer.

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27. Anonymous on April 3, 2013 2:14 AM writes...

Who stores chemicals in an office, and why?

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28. milkshaken on April 3, 2013 4:53 AM writes...

he kept the compound in the office in hopes that the prospective thief will take it and undergo a prompt career apoptosis

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29. archie on April 3, 2013 6:44 AM writes...

@20 D-Not, you are Zhou and I claim my five pounds.

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30. marcello on April 3, 2013 8:18 AM writes...

It's not racism when the facts are that industrial / IP espionage done by Chinese or Chinese-American individuals is on the rise...

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31. The Iron Chemist on April 3, 2013 8:19 AM writes...

@19: Perhaps he doesn't have the synthetic chops to make it. Even if he had a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry (not a given), he might not be able to prepare the stuff from a structure or even an outline of a procedure.

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32. darwinsdog on April 3, 2013 9:19 AM writes...

strange story and stranger posts but @29 - funny! and you are British, I claim my 5 pounds (americans this is not a shylock ref)

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33. Anonymous academic on April 3, 2013 9:32 AM writes...

@12: "And, no, storing laboratory data on one's personal computer was never allowed nor expected in any lab in which I worked."

I have exactly the opposite experience: I have always stored (academic) lab data on my personal computer(s), with the explicit knowledge of my supervisors, and I have never once gotten in trouble for doing this. As a grad student this is almost essential, since most students have to buy their own laptops. I only stopped because I didn't like having to use my personal laptop for business travel, where it risked being stolen or broken, and my boss bought me one.

I also know pharma researchers who have done this as well - usually because the company refused to buy anything other than Windows PCs, which won't even run some of the software they require for their work - although this is much rarer. Of course, taking the data with them after they leave would be extraordinarily stupid.

Nothing else Zhao is accused of doing sounds defensible, but if an *academic* lab is freaking out about data on personal computers, they have seriously misplaced their priorities.

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34. Kenny on April 3, 2013 10:12 AM writes...

@esteban--well, I was kidding, but D-Not seems to have out-trolled me by a country mile.

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35. jb on April 3, 2013 10:25 AM writes...

Same here. When I was a grad student, we all had to use our own laptops. Even when I did my postdoc (academic), I had to do the same. It wasn't until I insisted that having a computer is part of the necessities for me to be able to do my job that I was given a desktop. The last few years, with network drives being accessible from home, I basically had everything in my home computer as well. I've never heard of any policy against doing so in an academic setting.

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36. eugene on April 3, 2013 11:07 AM writes...

Most academic labs are fine with you storing data on your laptop. I would have said all academic labs, but it appears that some are a bit weird, judging by weirdo's comment. My academic lab bosses sure aren't going to shell out the cash to pay for a laptop for you.

Besides, I prefer buying my own since I can shop around and get the best specs to run some DFT computational software and Mass Effect 3 at full specs. The new graphic cards for video games are so powerful, that you can use their RAM to help run your DFT software as well if the homebrew DFT program supports that. Still haven't seen a laptop that can run a Gaussian job though.

Anyways, getting back on topic, I have all my old data on my laptop. It would be stupid of my old bosses to insist that I delete it, as it would mean less articles for them, since I'm still actively accessing it while I'm writing papers on work that I did still in my PhD, never mind the postdoc. They would certainly never have the time, or the inclination really, to wade through it themselves.

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37. weirdo on April 3, 2013 4:08 PM writes...

Re: Lab data on a personal computer.

I suspect the level of funding of the academic lab might have something to do with this. Clearly I have worked only in fortunately-funded labs, and was biased accordingly.

But I think there is a bit of short-sightedness here, too. With the big push at many academic institutions to file patent applications on every brain f*rt a PI has, and with more and more data needed to defent patent claims, not having control and traceability on the data seems . . . weird.

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38. My 0.02 on April 3, 2013 4:22 PM writes...

Something is fishy here. Why would he "steal" the compound when he can have it synthesized in China easily? I'll say that it is a setup.

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39. eugene on April 4, 2013 7:29 AM writes...

"and with more and more data needed to defent patent claims, not having control and traceability on the data seems . . . weird."

The data on my laptop and backup drive is a copy of the data that is in the lab. The original notebooks and NMR files are still all in the lab. It should all be there (if it wasn't thrown out in one of the yearly cleanings), except for the calculations and the various early article versions, that were generated on my computer. I sometimes got requests from a former boss for my Chemdraw files, and eventually all our group meeting presentations were collected as well.

My former boss doesn't allow me to talk about some research I did in the lab, but I think it's better to trust a person on that and not to insist on them deleting all data from their computer. I would not want to work in an academic lab that insisted on such a practice.

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40. MTK on April 5, 2013 6:56 AM writes...

@38 My 0.02

Because he'd have to pay for it to be made in China?

Still the whole thing does sound like a set up.

And while some here have made remarks regarding Zhao's ethnicity I do not think this is racist per se. This is cultural. When you've lived your entire life under a corrupt system run by corrupt officials who do whatever they want and are never held accountable, guess what happens. Pretty soon you're thinking "I'm getting my share too."

That's not excusing the behavior. Everyone, including the perp, knows it's wrong, but as they say in NASCAR "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'."

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41. Huajun Zhao on November 17, 2013 12:21 PM writes...

1. No reliance can be placed on MCW’s evidence.

(1) On February 22, 2013, I was summoned to a meeting with the 76-year-old full professor MA and MCW officials because of my lengthy absence. They set a schedule for me to finish my first authored manuscript about C25 before March 15, 2013. Sometime that same day, MA misplaced three pill bottle sized container s of C25 (actually only two bottles of C-25). On February 25, 2013, MCW officials sent an email to MCW employees reporting that MA had misplaced the bottles of C-25, indicating that MA believed he had left the pill bottles in a conference room.
But later MA told MCW security that he put the compound in his office. So

(2) MA thought that C-25 would be damaged because I stored it at below zero for long-term storage. Such a funniest joke!

(3) I posted a question for troubleshooting on researchgate, "We found a novel compound......", MA thought I offended his trade secret about C-25. So funny!

(4) I didn’t apply for any Chinese fund about C-25.

(5) There was no evidence that MCW had a patent of C-25. And also, MA didn’t apply for any grant of C-25.

2. Substantially, MCW and MA attempted to deprive me of my credit and contribution.

(1) February 27, 2013, MCW officials took my personal laptop and external drive and other personal property from me without my willing and I was suspended. On the evening of that same day, I thought that MCW officials’ action was illegal and was afraid of losing my own data including MA lab’s and my former lab’s. Also, Somebody told me that my laptop was still on my desk.
So, I returned the lab. But I found that my personal property was gone, later, I found a flash drive to make a copy from my lab computer to protect my own data. This is so-called “ accessing information without authorization from a protected computer”. Have to do like this for being released.

(2) All research data was produced by myself. What I deleted was a old copy of my
experimental data from my lab computer. So called "MCOW computer" and
"protected computer" were my
lab computer.

3. On April 1,2013, I appeared again before Magistrate Judge Gorence and was ordered detained based on the risk of flight because I was a Chinese. No bail!

4. And also, in the first two weeks, jail officials deprived me of my correspondence right.

5. “There is no evidence that the defendant was attempting to commit fraud or to profit from his conduct in this case. Nor is there any evidence demonstrating that the defendant intended to cause any loss to the victim or to anyone else. It appears that the defendant was trying to protect data which he helped compile relating to cancer research. “ from Judge Charles N. Clevert.

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