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Cancer Center Execs Resign Following Biomedical IP Theft Concerns

by Chris Brook on Tuesday January 7, 2020

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It's the latest in a series of stories involving investigations of suspected intellectual property theft at medical schools and research laboratories.

Scrutiny over China's interest in U.S. intellectual property, specifically IP pertaining to medical research, has prompted yet another research institution to part ways with some of its executives.

The H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, a treatment and research facility in Tampa, Fla. announced shortly before Christmas that it had accepted the resignation of both its president and CEO, its center director, and four additional researchers. The separation came after the facility launched an internal review of its team members' relationships with research facilities in China.

The investigation was prompted by a recent dragnet carried out by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in which it warned its grant recipients of foreign efforts to influence or compromise U.S. researchers.

It's worth noting the facility didn't say any research was actually compromised as a result of the "compliance violations," only that the violations stemmed from conflicted interest rules. According to a press release issued by the cancer center, Dr. Alan List, the facility's president and CEO, Thomas Sellers, the center's director, and four unnamed researchers no longer work at the facility.

The New York Times reported last fall that the NIH, the arm of the U.S. government in charge of overseeing biomedical and public health research, sent 18,000 letters to administrators at biomedical facilities in 2018 urging them to look into scientists that may have ulterior motives. That in turn led to 71 facilities launching 180 formal cases involving the potential theft of intellectual property. It's unclear whether Moffitt was one of those 71 institutions.

As is to be expected, the NIH has quite a bit at stake here; it gives out $30 billion annually to scientists at grantee institutions to be used for medical research. Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH's deputy director for extramural research said in October that the NIH, which is a medical research center in and of itself, referred 21 of those cases to the United States Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Inspector General for debarment in order to prevent the scientists from applying for grants.

According to Moffitt, the staff members implicated in the investigation participated in China's "Thousand Talents" program, an initiative spearheaded by China designed to recruit individuals 55 years of age or younger who work in universities or R&D institutes who are willing to relocate to China and work.

In wake of the news, Moffitt said that it would be reviewing its procedures around protecting intellectual property, in particular a 12-year relationship the center has maintained with Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital, a facility based in China.

On the surface, the incident at Moffitt doesn't appear as severe as one at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, a facility in Houston that ousted three scientists this past April after similar concerns. In M.D. Anderson's case, a scientist actually took hard drives containing research data and was caught en route to the airport and ultimately China. According to the Associated Press, the hospital received a letter from NIH that disclosed "conflicts of interest and unreported foreign income by five faculty members." Three of the scientists resigned, one retired, and one's

A similar scenario transpired this past September, at Nationwide Children's, a children's hospital in Columbus, Ohio. It can be argued the two suspects in that crime managed to do worse: The two scientists, who are married, allegedly stole data and used it to apply for Chinese patents and even set up their own companies, one based in China, one based in the U.S.

Tags: IP theft

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Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Data Insider. He is a technology journalist with a decade of experience writing about information security, hackers, and privacy. Chris has attended many infosec conferences and has interviewed hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site which is a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.