Switzerland has agreed to extradite a Chinese researcher, Gongda Xue, who has been charged in a court in Pennsylvania in the U.S. with dealing in trade secrets stolen by her sister from a factory of pharmaceutical group GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) from 2012 to 2015.
Gongda Xue worked in Basel for the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research.
Gongda’s sister Yu Xue, one of the world’s top protein biochemists, worked as a scientist in the GSK factory in Pennsylvania from where she stole data and passed it on to her accomplices. She also sent data to her brother Gongda Xue who too passed them on to accomplices after conducting tests at the Basel institute.
According to U.S. federal prosecutors, Yu Xue and her accomplices Tao Li and Yan Mei created a company, Renopharma, in Nanjing, China, supposedly to research and develop anti-cancer drugs. But the company was used as a repository of stolen information from GSK. It also received financial support and subsidies from the government of China.
Yu Xue pleaded guilty to the charges last year. A month later her accomplice Tao Li of San Diego, California, too pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal trade secrets from GSK to benefit Renopharma.
The case strengthens the perception that China is using its highly educated citizens for industrial espionage in western countries. Renopharma, the company set up to sell stolen information, was backed by the Chinese government, after all.
These pharma spies studied in top universities and had impeccable credentials. Below is brief information on them as given by U.S. federal prosecutors:
Xue is a Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry from the University of North Carolina and has an undergraduate degree from Peking University in China. According to her resume, she was the HER3 project co-leader at GSK working on monoclonal antibody design. Prior to working at GSK, she worked for six years at the University of North Carolina as a research analyst.
Tao Li was one of the owners of Renopharma, the company which was established to sell the stolen trade secret and otherwise confidential information. Yu Xue e-mailed some of the stolen trade secret and otherwise confidential information to Tao Li. Tao Li worked in China to market and sell the stolen trade secret and otherwise confidential information on behalf of Renopharma. Tao Li’s role in the conspiracy also included raising funds for Renopharma from various sources, such as private investors, government agencies, and universities. Tao Li has a B.S. in Biochemistry from Nankai University in Tianjin, China; an M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry; and a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of North Carolina.
Yan Mei was another one of the owners of Renopharma. Yu Xue e-mailed some of the stolen trade secret and otherwise confidential information to Yan Mei. Yan Mei worked in China to market and sell the trade secret and otherwise confidential information on behalf of Renopharma. Yan Mei also assisted Yu Xue with the scientific processes for Renopharma. His wife, Lucy Xi, worked at GSK with Yu Xue during the conspiracy. Yan Mei received a B.S. in chemistry and molecular engineering from Peking University and a Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry from the University of Iowa in 2009.
Tian Xue was the twin sister of Yu Xue. Tian Xue also worked for Renopharma. Knowing their conduct was illegal and attempting to prevent the fraud from being traced back to the source, Yu Xue, Tao Li, Yan Mei and Tian Xue agreed to hide a portion of the proceeds from Yu Xue’s criminal conduct in Tian Xue’s name. Tian Xue set up a computer system for Renopharma and also assisted Yu Xue with some of the scientific processes for Renopharma, processes which used the stolen GSK information and trade secret procedures. According to her resume, Tian Xue has a B.S. in Biochemistry from Jilin University in Changchun, China; an M.S. in Biochemistry from Tsinghua University in Beijing; a Ph.D. in Immunology from the National Institute for Medical Research in London; and an M.S. in Computer Science and Information Technology from the University of North Carolina.
Yu Xue’s secret project
Prosecutors have charged Yu Xue with stealing various kinds of secret information and data. One important project she was working on was HER3. The product under development was a monoclonal antibody (mAB) designed to link to HER3 receptors on human body cells. In certain forms of cancer, HER3 receptors are overexpressed, that is, human body cells contain too many of these receptors. This overexpression contributes to the development of cancer. The proposed antibody would either destroy or otherwise impact the overexpressed HER3 receptor cells to eliminate the cancer, slow its development, or help to prevent the cancer from returning.