A Chinese American couple has been arrested and charged with stealing scientific trade secrets from a children’s hospital in Ohio in the latest federal prosecution aimed at clamping down on China’s alleged theft of American intellectual property.
The couple — Yu Zhou, 49, and Li Chen, 46 — worked in separate labs at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, for 10 years, stealing proprietary research for use in personal business ventures, law enforcement officials announced Monday.
The purloined exosome-related trade secrets play a key role in the diagnosis and treatment of a range of pediatric medical conditions, including liver cancer and a condition found in premature babies, according to a 27-page federal indictment.
The indictment alleges that the couple founded a company in China in 2015 without the hospital’s knowledge or authorization, marketing products related to exosome isolation. Two years later, Zhou helped found an American biotechnology company, advertising products including a kit developed with a trade secret created at one of the hospital’s research labs. Shortly before resigning from the hospital in 2017, Zhu allegedly announced in a press release his new company’s plans to distribute “proprietary exosome isolation systems” from its Central Ohio headquarters.
“Nationwide Children’s Hospital devoted years of work and its own money to researching exosomes in order to promote honorable medical advances,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Benjamin Glassman said in a statement.
In a statement to VOA, the hospital said, “When we discovered this incident, we alerted the FBI and have been actively collaborating with them.”
Zhou and Chen were arrested in July. The 27-count indictment was unsealed Thursday at their arraignment in federal court in Columbus. The charges carry 10 to 20 years in prison.
Lawyers for the couple did not immediately respond to an email from VOA seeking comment.
The indictment is part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on China’s alleged theft of American property and other predatory practices that are at the heart of trade tensions between Washington and Beijing.
In the last 10 months, the Justice Department has brought charges against Chinese nationals and entities in at least seven separate economic espionage cases, up from three during the prior 10 months. In addition, the department has obtained guilty pleas and convictions in six older espionage cases, while charging four Chinese nationals for evading sanctions against North Korea.
“The theft of trade secrets is a growing threat that severely impacts our economy and our national security,” stated FBI Cincinnati Special Agent in Charge Todd Wickerham.
Separately, the Justice Department announced the arrest of a Chinese government employee on conspiracy charges of fraudulently obtaining U.S. visas for fellow government workers.
Zhongsan Liu was arrested Thursday in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and later presented before a U.S. magistrate in federal court in New York.
“We welcome foreign students and researchers, including from China, but we do not welcome visa fraud especially on behalf of a government,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers of National Security. “We will continue to confront Chinese government attempts to subvert American law to advance its own interests in diverting U.S. research and know-how to China.”