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China-linked researcher gets US prison time for stealing science to sell in China

A bacteriology researcher at the Institute of Medical Research. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marcus Morris)
February 03, 2021

A researcher at a U.S. hospital was sentenced to 30 months in prison Monday for plotting to steal scientific research and data on pediatric medical conditions and sell the information in China.

Li Chen, 47, pleaded guilty to stealing exosome and exosome isolation scientific research from Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Research Institute in July last year with her husband and co-conspirator Yu Zhou. Both Chen and Zhou worked in medical research labs at the Research Institute for a decade, a Justice Department release stated.

“Chen and her husband executed a scheme over the course of several years to set up businesses in China, steal American research and profit from doing so,” said U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers for the Southern District of Ohio. “Chen willingly took part in the Chinese government’s long-term efforts to steal American intellectual property. She deserves time in federal prison.”

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), Chen planned to steal and create exosome “isolation kits,” even starting a company in China to sell the kits for personal financial gain. Exosomes are key to research, identification and treatment of a wide range of medical conditions, including liver fibrosis and liver cancer.

The DOJ said Chen applied to Chinese government talent plans, a Chinese strategy used to accumulate foreign research and technology. She also received benefits from the Chinese government’s State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

“For far too long, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has encouraged the outright theft of American trade secrets through Chinese government programs that reward researchers for stealing what China cannot produce through its own ingenuity,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers for the National Security Division. “These programs, like the Thousand Talents, are not innocuous platforms for academic collaboration. Today’s conclusion of yet another successful prosecution for theft of trade secrets encouraged by the PRC Government serves as a warning to all who might seek to profit from China’s illicit efforts to achieve technological dominance through thievery.”

In addition to jail time, Chen was ordered to pay $2.6 million in restitution, and will give up roughly $1.25 million, 500,000 shares of Avalon GloboCare Corp. and 400 shares of GenExosome.

Zhou also pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

“A hospital’s most important mission is to help people live longer and healthier lives. The defendant’s mission, however, was to steal trade secrets and create a company in China to make money off those stolen trade secrets,” said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “The FBI will not stop its efforts to identify people who steal technology for their own financial benefit or for the benefit of a foreign government.”