Links to China Prompt Purge at Moffitt Cancer Center

By Joseph Allen
January 2, 2020

“While it’s commendable that the inappropriate activities at the Moffitt Cancer Center were uncovered internally, it’s troubling that the problem wasn’t limited to bench scientists but involved the leaders of the Center. And they were Americans, not foreign nationals.”

https://moffitt.org/locations-directions/moffitt-cancer-center/Underscoring the seriousness of the threat posed by the Chinese government’s campaign to obtain results of U.S. publicly funded research, the Board of Directors at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida announced that its President and CEO, Dr. Alan List, along with center director, Timothy Sellers, suddenly resigned after an internal review found they had violated conflict of interest rules regarding their relationships with China. Four researchers also abruptly left. The actions came after the Moffitt Center conducted an internal review of collaborations between its employees and Chinese institutions as a result of warnings from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to its grant recipients about foreign attempts to influence or compromise their research.

The Moffitt Review

The Center is named for former House Speaker of Florida, H. Lee Moffitt, who informed Florida lawmakers that NIH deputy director for extramural research, Dr. Michael Lauer, had been briefed on the findings of the investigation. Lauer is the NIH leader on the issue of inappropriate foreign attempts to access its R&D. According to the Tampa Bay Times, he had previously stated: “Many of the universities had no clue this was happening on their campuses… The scientists they employed never told them about any ties to China, or that they were also employed there.”

Upon learning of the resignations, the State of Florida announced that it is investigating Moffitt and other federally and state funded academic institutions.

NIH provides $30 billion a year in R&D funding to academic institutions. Resulting inventions are governed by the provisions of the Bayh-Dole Act, which requires that they are owned by the inventing organization but they must be reported to the funding agency, with preferences given to licensing and developing them in the United States.

The Moffitt review focused on connections between its researchers and  China’s “Thousand Talents” program. According to a report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that we discussed here, the Thousand Talents program is a central part of China’s effort to secure backdoor access to promising research in American universities, federal laboratories and medical centers.

According to a statement by the Center, there is no indication that research was affected by the relationships it uncovered. However, Moffitt officials  announced that  they are reviewing  internal procedures for protecting their intellectual property. They are also reviewing a 12-year partnership with the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital in China.

Concerns have been growing about Chinese efforts to pilfer American publicly funded research. In “Vast Dragnet Targets Theft of Biomedical Secrets for China“, The New York Times reported that nearly 200 investigations are underway at major research centers as a result of  the NIH and the FBI cracking down on Chinese activities.

“Seventy-one institutions, including many of the most prestigious medical schools in the United States, are now investigating 180 individual cases involving potential theft of intellectual property,” said Dr. Lauer in the Times article. In 24 instances there appears to be evidence of criminal activity. “It seems to be hitting every discipline in biomedical research,” Dr. Lauer added.

However, foreign threats are not limited to the life sciences. Any area of economic or military significance is targeted, prompting the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and NASA, among others, to warn their grantees to be on the lookout for inappropriate or undisclosed relationships between their researchers and foreign interests.

[[Advertisement]]

The New Threat

The current scrutiny of foreign research ties began in 2016 when the FBI contacted NIH indicating concerns that something was amiss in the federal grants system. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that China was working to “steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense.” NIH began sending letters to its grantees alerting them to the problem. Several medical centers received follow on notices asking that activities of specific scientists be investigated.

According to the New York Times:

Some of the first inklings of trouble were discovered by administrators at M.D. Anderson, a prominent cancer research and treatment center. Between August 2018 and January 2019, five letters arrived at the center from the N.I.H. asking administrators to investigate the activities of five faculty members.

Dr. Peter Pisters, president of the cancer center, said he and his colleagues reviewed faculty emails, and they turned up disturbing evidence.

Among the redacted emails provided to The New York Times was one by a scientist planning to whisk proprietary test materials to colleagues in China. “I should be able to bring the whole sets of primers to you (if I can figure out how to get a dozen tubes of frozen DNA onto an airplane),” he wrote.

The redacted M.D. Anderson emails also suggest that a scientist at the medical center sent data and research to the Chinese government in exchange for a $75,000 one-year “appointment” under the Thousand Talents Program, which Beijing established a decade ago to recruit scientists to Chinese universities.

Evidence was found by some grantees that Chinese start-up companies had been formed based on NIH funded research which had gone out the back door.

The university community is taking the issue seriously, with the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities jointly issuing guidance to their member schools on steps that should be taken to protect their research from security threats and improper foreign influence. With bipartisan political heat increasing, schools are well advised to get on top of the issue.

While it’s commendable that the inappropriate activities at the Moffitt Cancer Center were uncovered internally, it’s troubling that the problem wasn’t limited to bench scientists but involved the leaders of the Center. And they were Americans, not foreign nationals.

Lenin once reportedly bragged that Communism would hang the West. One of his cronies smiled and asked: “And where will we get the rope?” Lenin shot back: “They will sell it to us.” Things have changed since Lenin’s day.  The new model isn’t buying the rope but stealing it. Either way, the intent is the same.

Lock the Back Door

It is expected that the first phase of the pending U.S.- China trade deal will have some provision for halting the theft of intellectual property from our companies doing business over there. We’d better get a mechanism in place to lock our back door as well. This is where the discoveries driving our economy and protecting the national defense are being created. And if they are stolen by our most serious rival, the future won’t be pretty.

Image Source: Deposit Photos
Image ID: 209067610
Copyright: alexlmx 

The Author

Joseph Allen

Joseph Allen is a Featured Contributor on IPWatchdog.com, and a 30-year veteran of national efforts to foster public/private sector commercialization partnerships, and author of numerous articles on technology management for national publications.

Joe served as a Professional Staff Member on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee with former Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), and was instrumental in working behind the scenes to ensure passage of the historic Bayh-Dole Act. He is our resident Bayh-Dole expert, and will write frequently about Bayh-Dole and issues surrounding the commercialization of university research.

In 2008, Joe founded Allen & Associates, through which he offers consulting services assisting clients in technology transfer issues, including developing effective communication strategies with national policy makers.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 15 Comments comments. Join the discussion.

  1. angry dude January 3, 2020 12:13 am

    “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them” is the quote usually attributed to Lenin (or Karl Marx or even Stalin according to other sources) although there is no hard evidence that Lenin ever said this

    In reality USA does not even sell the rope – it gives it away for free – to China and the rest of the world..

  2. Anon January 3, 2020 8:57 am

    There is a certain prolific patent blogger whose mantra of “innovation anywhere is good for everyone everywhere” would basically make this story into a non-event.

    Hint: GDL

  3. Janai January 3, 2020 11:26 am

    I am continually amazed by these “professionals” embedded in institutions who havn’t a lick of commense sense (or is just pure stupidity?) Here’s a new maxim for these geniuses regarding dealings with China, “If they can steal it – THEY WILL!!!!”

  4. Jerry January 3, 2020 3:38 pm

    Should Moffitt Cancer Center release the names off all 6 people who resigned relative to this China investigation?

  5. George January 4, 2020 5:52 pm

    Why the big surprise and alarm? No one in America has any real loyalty to anything or anyone, anymore, either, especially our own President. Everyone looks out for themselves – except the Chinese who still look out for their homeland, too.

    But then maybe nationalism vs. free trade is the problem here. Maybe we’ve opened the proverbial Pandora’s box and will never be able to close it again. Maybe IP will never again be what it once was or will just become a thing of the past entirely. Maybe IP has now become like water – hard to contain.

    Maybe IP will die altogether over the next 100 years. Maybe it just won’t be worth it anymore? Maybe the Chinese have always (cynically) been convinced of that but don’t have the heart to tell us. Or, maybe we’ll have to just go back to trade secrets once again (for however long they might last), as the Chinese and many other countries relied on for thousands of years before the concept of patent rights came about. We still don’t know everything about those incredible Viking swords were made that were 100’s of years ahead of anything available in Europe, and that’s because they were able to keep that knowledge a secret for 100’s of years.

    Guess skilled tradesman were more trustworthy & less greedy back then. But the ‘honor’ system still works for magicians today, so why is that? Anyway, that kind of secrecy sure beats a 20 year term, doesn’t it? Now everything has to be put in writing and even then it might not mean anything.

    Patents are no longer working the way they were originally intended to work. I think part of the reason is that there are just WAY too many of them being issued now. No way to keep them separate and distinct anymore. But some people are still advocating for even more of them to be issued! How’s that going to make things better?

  6. Jerry January 4, 2020 6:26 pm

    The longer Moffitt Cancer Center refuses to be transparent about the the names of researchers who resigned and the actual facts in this China/related case, the more this wonderful institution and its patients and staff will be damaged by speculation and the subsequent negative rumors that are sure to follow. Tragic.

  7. MaxDrei January 5, 2020 5:57 pm

    George, you put your finger on the issue here, between what China stands for and what the USA used to stand for (the Rule of Law and the separation of powers).

    Every Han Chinese (even those who enjoy citizenship of the USA) is part of a big world-wide family to which it owes fealty. Judges in China deliver what is expected of them by the Head of that Family. You can see the same thing happening in countries like Poland, Turkey and Hungary, to say nothing of the world’s theocracies and the present and former Communist countries.

    When you file a patent application at the PTO (in particular under the PCT) the PTO promptly shares that fact and that knowledge with other Patent Offices around the world. Do you suppose that the Patent Office in China keeps that knowledge to itself? Or is it that, in China, the PTO and China’s corporate entities see themselves as fellow members of the same big Family?

    The current President of the USA is also head of a family, and likes to compare the way he rules with the way the Rulers of other countries do it. I wish he wouldn’t. I have the feeling that he doesn’t understand how precious are the values he is supposed to be defending.

  8. angry dude January 5, 2020 11:09 pm

    MaxDrei @5

    The President of the USA does not rule this country. Neither does Congress.
    A small number of the largest multinational corporations do.

    This is corporatocracy, not democracy

  9. MaxDrei January 6, 2020 7:41 am

    AD, can you expand on that? There are still mandatory elections in the USA, at set intervals, and universal suffrage. At such elections, it remains possible for the government to be voted out. So despite the lobbying strength of the big corporations, the USA is still a functioning democracy, right?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_suffrage

    Here in Germany, public opinion polls reveal that most people place more trust in their employer more than they do in other designations, such as ministers of religion, bankers, journalists and police officers. I can only conclude that a majority of the voters in the USA want to live in what you call a corporatocracy, that it suits them, that they view all the alternatives as less attractive. Are they then all deluded?

  10. Anon January 6, 2020 8:19 am

    MaxDrei,

    The short answer is “Yes.”

    The longer answer has to do with the nature of the US Sovereign and our historical “independent cowboy” mentality.

    Yippee-Ky-Yay and all that.

  11. angry dude January 6, 2020 5:12 pm

    MaxDrei @9

    “There are still mandatory elections in the USA” :):):)

    There are mandatory elections in Russia too, and in some God forsaken African countries where some elected presidents have good tradition to have their political opponents for dinner (literally – as food)

    The lemmings in this country will not revolt for as long as they have free popcorn (fast food, food stamps etc.), beer and entertainment (football games on TV, TV shows, movies, video games etc)

    Like in the ancient Rome times, the country is rotting from inside out and the enemies (only this time they are not barbarians but better educated than an average American) are encircling it on all sides, but the lemmings will just shout out “Bread and circuses !!!”

    I guess you can call it “democracy” but i’d rather call it “idiocracy” (in addition to being de facto corporatocracy)

  12. MaxDrei January 7, 2020 8:22 am

    As Churchill said, AD, “The best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter”. The difference between a real representative democracy and one that isn’t but purports to be is that in a real democracy the outcome of the election is determined by all those average voters who took part in it. A society has to find within itself a sufficient trust in the collective wisdom of the crowd of those entitled to vote. What other political system is tolerable?

    BTW, don’t worry about being “encircled”. It is not so, that the whole world is united by a shared antagonism to the USA. Not yet anyway (although the rate of squandering of US soft power, accumulated over centuries, gets ever more breath-taking). They are too busy arguing amongst themselves to get together against the USA. Talk of friends and enemies is misplaced. Sovereign States have imperatives, which they label “national interests”. These render anything in the nature of transient feelings of friendliness or unfriendliness utterly insignificant.

  13. Anon January 7, 2020 1:06 pm

    Without being too flippant, “ What other political system is tolerable?” is answered that EVERY political system is tolerable (leastwise by those wanting the particular system).

    If I recall correctly, the political system of Benevolent Dictator is the most effective.

  14. Brandon Sanders January 7, 2020 7:27 pm

    It’s doubly sad when the perpetrators of these crimes against U.S. national security are abetted by own our people. China surely has the influence, power, and lure of money to now affect Americans. And it’s clearly not just something we’re seeing with the influx (and corresponding patronizing) of replica and copycat Chinese products and services by many U.S. citizens everywhere. China has been engaging in espionage and intellectual property theft for decades, and in so much as the gov’t is doing what it can to end this vicious cycle, some Americans (especially big business leaders) are only concerned with lining their pockets. We must rally behind ongoing initiatives to protect U.S. tech and innovations and call out those that pander to China, lest the Asian nation complete steals the very soul of this country.

    https://www.americaagainststolenip.org/jury-backs-american-companies-patent-infringement-ucloudlink-huawei/

  15. angry dude January 8, 2020 10:07 am

    Brandon Sanders @14

    China does not need to steal US innovations anymore.

    US inventors are advised to file patent applications in China and NOT in the US…
    How’s that ?
    And who is the traitor here … poor sod American inventor (under-capitalized startup) or US Government ?
    Or a whistle-blower ?

Post a Comment

Respectfully add to the discussion.

Name *
Email *
Website