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HMS Fellows Indicted For Alleged Lab Theft

A federal grand jury indicted two former postdoctoral research fellows at Harvard Medical School (HMS) on June 17 on chargers related to thefts from the lab where they worked. The researchers were charged with Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property, an offense that carries a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Their arraignment is set for July 11.

Chinese national Jiangyu Zhu, 33, and Japanese national Kayoko Kimbara, 35, who are married, have been living on bail in San Diego since their arrest nearly three years ago. They are accused of stealing materials from Professor of Cell Biology Frank D. McKeon’s lab at HMS in December, 1999, when both were preparing to leave Harvard for the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The couple allegedly shipped more than 20 boxes of sensitive medical materials to Texas, where they were recovered in June, 2000. The stolen materials were crucial to research involving calcineurin, an enzyme that causes the immune system to reject transplanted organs. Immediately before leaving Harvard, Zhu and Kimbara had found genes that block calcineurin—a lucrative discovery for drug development.

According to the indictment, Zhu and Kimbara had signed Participation Agreements agreeing that all of their discoveries and materials belonged to Harvard. After shipping the materials to Texas without authorization, they denied they took anything from the lab and allegedly concealed data. The indictment also alleges that they removed from the lab materials concerning the work of other scientists.

A spokesperson for HMS said that Harvard has cooperated fully with the FBI’s three-year investigation, providing evidence when necessary. Both the spokesperson and the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuting the case declined to specify exactly the evidence included.

Peter B. Krupp, Zhu’s attorney, said it is likely that several Harvard employees and affiliates will be called to testify at a trial.

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Immediately after the indictment, Zhu and Kimbara’s lawyers released a statement in which they were quick to point out that the government had dropped the most serious charges—conspiracy and theft of trade secrets—on the grounds that they were untruthful. If the couple had been convicted of these charges, they would probably have received an additional 15 years imprisonment and $500,000 in fines.

“I am disappointed that the government has elected to continue its prosecution of our clients, even on the limited charge that remains,” Krupp said in his statement. “Drs. Zhu and Kimbara are confident that once the first facts are heard, it will be clear that they have not done anything wrong and no crime was committed.”

The defense indicated its central argument will be that Zhu and Kimbara did nothing out of the ordinary.

“As any researcher knows, it is customary for a scientist joining another research institution to bring to his new laboratory materials related to his prior and on-going research,” the statement says. “Indeed, Harvard was well aware that Drs. Zhu and Kimbara would continue to pursue their research at the University of Texas.”

But, according to HMS Professor of Genetics Brian Seed, the ownership of medical research is never black-and-white—and generally subject to an early contract of some sort.

“The products of research, meaning the materials generated, notebooks, data, and other fruits of the research enterprise, both tangible and intangible, belong to the recipient institution, not individual researchers,” Seed wrote in an e-mail. “Upon completion of a study it is often customary to enter into agreements about the appropriate disposition of research products.”

As for the charges against Zhu and Kimbara, Seed said he was not familiar with the details of the case and could not comment on it.

—Staff writer Adam M. Guren can be reached at guren@fas.harvard.edu.

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