MILWAUKEE — When three vials of a possible cancer-fighting compound disappeared recently from a professor's desk at the Medical College of Wisconsin, suspicion quickly fell on a research assistant who had been working in the scientist's lab.
Security video showed Hua Jun Zhao, who studied in China and whose wife lives there, was the only person who entered the professor's office that day. Investigators later found research results from another professor on Zhao's computer.
Zhao has been charged in a federal complaint with economic espionage, accused by prosecutors stealing academic research to pass off as his own in China. Prosecutors said he hoped to study the compound and other materials at Zhejiang University, one of several Chinese schools that have been troubled by plagiarism, fraud and academic misconduct.
Zhao, 42, worked on a team led by professor Marshall Anderson, who is researching whether the compound can help kill cancer cells without damaging healthy ones, school spokeswoman Maureen Mack said. The compound is still being studied in a lab and has not yet advanced to clinical testing, she said.
The stolen vials of the C-25 powder are worth $8,000, the complaint said. Leonard Peace, an FBI spokesman in Milwaukee, said he couldn't comment beyond what was in the complaint, except to confirm the vials had not been recovered.
Anderson noticed the vials missing on Feb. 22. School security video showed Zhao was the only person who entered Anderson's office that day. Federal investigators questioned him about the vials on Feb. 27, but Zhao claimed he did not understand their questions, the complaint said. The school immediately placed him on administrative leave.
Zhao's co-workers told the FBI that Zhao spoke excellent English and he had lived in the U.S. for many years. Mack declined to say how long Zhao worked at the school and would not provide details of his immigration status, referring questions to the FBI.
Zhao was arrested March 29 and charged with economic espionage, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. A judge on Monday ordered him held at Milwaukee County Jail until trial. No trial date has been set but a preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 11.
Zhao's public defender, Juval Scott, said it was too early to comment on the case.