BOSTON, June 20 (UPI) -- A Chinese man and a Japanese woman were under arrest Thursday on federal charges of stealing trade secrets while working as doctoral fellows at Harvard Medical School.
The government alleged that the trade secrets involving years of research into gene codes had "significant commercial potential" and that the pair planned to sell them to a Japanese firm.
The U.S. Attorney's office in Boston announced that Jiangyu Zhu, 30, a Chinese national, and Kayoko Kimbara, 32, a Japanese national, were arrested Wednesday in San Diego.
They were charged with conspiracy, theft of trade secrets, and interstate transportation of stolen property. If convicted, they could be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.
Federal prosecutors said the two had been working as research fellows in the Harvard Medical School's Department of Cell Biology, helping to develop new drugs to be used to aide organ transplant recipients. Under an agreement they signed, anything they developed belonged to Harvard.
From 1997 to 1999, first Zhu and then Kimbara worked in the lab of Dr. Frank McKeon, whose research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society.
By 1999, the pair developed seven genetic sequences without telling McKeon, prosecutors alleged.
Because Zhu and Kimbara worked in the lab from 11 p.m. until about 9 a.m., in 1999, they were able to conceal their activities from the Harvard professor, prosecutors said.
Then, during the 1999 Christmas vacation, when few people were around the campus, the pair allegedly took some 20 boxes of biological samples from Harvard to the University of Texas at San Antonio, where they had taken new positions without telling Harvard.
Lab workers returning to Harvard after the holidays discovered that research documents and equipment was missing.
Confronted by Harvard officials, the two denied any involvement and announced their resignations.
A raid on Zhu's new lab in Texas in June 2000 turned up some of the material stolen from Harvard, but some remain missing, officials said.
The unnamed Japanese firm originally contact by Zhu has cooperated with the investigation and has returned all research data and products to Harvard, prosecutor said.
Zhu and Kimbara, who later moved to San Diego, were expected to be brought back to Boston for arraignment.
U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said the government places a high priority on prosecution people who steal the intellectual property of others.
"Protecting cutting-edge ideas is crucial to the creation of new products and our economy as a whole," Sullivan said.