• Kyodo

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A Japanese woman and a Chinese man, both researchers, were arrested Wednesday in southern California on suspicion of stealing genetic materials and information from a Harvard Medical School lab, the U.S. Justice Department said.

Kayoko Kinbara, 32, and Zhu Jiangyu, 30, who were postdoctoral fellows at Harvard, were charged with conspiracy, theft of trade secrets and interstate transportation of stolen property, and with trying to profit by collaborating with a Japanese company, the department said.

“Prosecuting people who steal the intellectual property of individuals and institutions is a very high priority for the Department of Justice,” U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said.

It is the second recent incident in which a Japanese medical researcher has been charged with economic espionage in the U.S., following a case in May 2001 involving a researcher for the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, a Japanese government-backed laboratory also known as Riken.

Kinbara was employed from October 1998 through December 1999 in the Harvard Medical School’s cell biology department, and Zhu worked there from February 1997 until December 1999.

The charges arise out of the alleged theft of Harvard Medical School trade secrets that are used to develop drugs to control organ rejection and to study genes that regulate calcineurin, an important signal enzyme in the heart, brain and immune systems, according to the department.

They are also accused of transporting those secrets from Boston to San Antonio, Texas, where they worked after quitting their jobs at Harvard, it said.

According to court documents, Kinbara and Zhu, who worked under the direction of a professor at the cell biology department, in early 1999 began to work in the lab from about 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. to further their research and keep information from the professor.

They had signed participation agreements upon coming to Harvard, which meant they agreed that all rights to any discovery or invention would belong to the university, even after termination of their Harvard employment.

Kinbara and Zhu are charged with conspiring to take the proprietary and marketable scientific information with them when they left for their new jobs at the University of Texas in January 2000.

According to the documents, Zhu sent an e-mail to the Japanese company prior to leaving Harvard and stated his intention of working with another researcher to commercialize the antibodies obtained through research conducted in the lab.

Zhu allegedly sent three new genes to Japan so that the company could make antibodies against them. This was done without the knowledge or authorization of Harvard officials, the department said.

The company, whose name was withheld, was able to produce antibodies against two of the genes and shipped them to Zhu at the University of Texas between February and May 2000, it said.

Prior to leaving Boston, the two allegedly shipped at least 20 cartons from the Harvard professor’s lab during the winter break and took more than 30 boxes of books and biological documentation without authorization.

In early January, other personnel reported missing biological materials, equipment and documentation.

According to the Justice Department, a significant amount of materials taken from the Harvard lab were later recovered in June 2000 from Kinbara’s and Zhu’s working areas at the University of Texas.

“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,” Harvard Medical officials said in a statement.

Kinbara graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1998 before beginning her work at Harvard University.

If convicted, Zhu and Kinbara face a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and fines of up to $750,000. They also face extradition to Massachusetts.

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