MILWAUKEE (AP) - A Medical College of Wisconsin researcher has been charged with economic espionage after he stole samples of a possible cancer-fighting compound and credited himself with its discovery in a grant application to study in China, prosecutors said.
Hua Jun Zhao, 42, stole three vials of the powdered C-25 compound from the office of Marshall Anderson, a professor at the college in suburban Milwaukee, with the intention of studying it at Zhejiang University in China, according to a federal criminal complaint.
Zhao was a member Anderson's team researching whether the compound could help kill cancer cells without damaging healthy ones, school spokeswoman Maureen Mack said.
The compound is still in the early laboratory-testing phase and hasn't advanced to trials on animals or people, Mack said. The Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Cincinnati have filed for a joint patent on the compound and are awaiting approval, she added.
Anderson noticed the vials were missing Feb. 22. School security video showed Zhao was the only person who entered Anderson's office that day. Federal investigators questioned Zhao about the vials on Feb. 27, but he claimed he did not understand their questions, the complaint says. The school immediately placed him on administrative leave.
Anderson did not immediately reply to an email message Tuesday.
Zhao's co-workers told the FBI that Zhao spoke excellent English and that he had lived in the U.S. for many years. Mack declined to say how long Zhao worked at the school and would not provide details of his immigration status, referring questions to the FBI. His wife lives in China, according to the criminal complaint.
Leonard Peace, an FBI spokesman in Milwaukee, said he couldn't comment beyond what was in the complaint, except to confirm the three missing vials had not been recovered.
The stolen vials are worth $8,000, the complaint said.
Zhao was arrested March 29 and charged with economic espionage, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. On Monday he was ordered held at Milwaukee County Jail until trial. No trial date has been set but a preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 11.
Zhao's public defender, Juval Scott, said it was too early to comment.
"Right now I know that a talented professional has been accused of a serious crime," she said in an email, "and our office looks forward to rolling up our sleeves and working on his behalf."
Zhao went to China in late December and returned mid-February, and since then he has claimed on his resume that he's an assistant professor at Zhejiang University, the complaint says.
After he was placed on administrative leave Zhao allowed the college to copy files from his personal laptop, a thumb drive and an external hard drive. Investigators found 384 files related to Anderson's research, as well as research results from another professor from the school's cancer department.
Among the files was a grant application to a Chinese foundation that Zhao wrote in Mandarin. In the application he said he discovered the C-25 compound and that he was seeking funding to continue his research in China. Anderson told investigators the application was a verbatim translation of a grant application he himself had written several years earlier.
Security staff at the medical college told FBI agents that on the day of his suspension Zhao also accessed school computers remotely and deleted files related to the C-25 research. The college was able to recover the files. Zhao denied accessing the server or deleting files and said he didn't understand the FBI agents' questions.
Federal authorities subsequently searched Zhao's home and found a receipt for shipment of a package to Zhao's wife. They also found two airline tickets from Chicago to China leaving Tuesday, as well as an application to the National Natural Science Foundation of China for research funding for C-25.
Associated Press writer Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.
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