A prominent cancer center in Houston has ousted three of five scientists whom federal authorities identified as being involved in Chinese efforts to steal American research.
The MD Anderson Cancer Center moved to fire the scientists, whose names were not released, after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) contacted at least 55 medical research institutions to report the names of researchers suspected of sharing federally-funded research with China or other foreign governments, the NIH said.
"When NIH notified MD Anderson of concerns with specific individuals within its institution, the university took immediate steps to remediate the problem," the NIH said in a statement.
"These incidents are not unique to MD Anderson and we remind universities to look closely at their organizations to mitigate unscrupulous practices by foreign entities that aim to capitalize on the collaborative nature of the U.S. biomedical enterprise."
The NIH told MD Anderson officials it had concerns about a total of five researchers.
Two of them resigned ahead of termination proceedings, and the third is challenging the dismissal, the NIH said.
A fourth was reprimanded but not terminated. One other MD Anderson researcher is still under investigation. according to the NIH.
"As stewards of taxpayer dollars invested in biomedical research, we have an obligation to follow up," Peter Pisters, the president of MD Anderson Cancer Center, said.
Science Magazine was first to report the NIH letters and ousted MD Anderson researchers.
Of the five researchers, three had ties to a talent recruitment program called "Thousand Talents," which is managed by the Chinese government and linked by U.S. intelligence to espionage, according to compliance reports summarizing the investigations and reviewed by NBC News.
The NIH cited the program as an area of concern in its letters to the 55 medical research institutions. The NIH is planning to contact additional medical research facilities detailing concerns over faculty members' links to foreign governments.
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An NBC News review of heavily redacted MD Anderson investigation reports show they include detailed payment information from Chinese universities and diagrams documenting how the Thousand Talents program participates in a quid-pro-quo scheme that compensates doctors for intellectual property.
One report said the investigator found "compelling evidence" that an MD Anderson doctor also held a compensated position at a Chinese university that paid a monthly subsidy of $30,000 RMB or $4,322.
The reports show that MD Anderson, after gaining access to some of the researchers' email accounts, discovered documents that showed signed consulting agreements with Chinese entities.
The NIH made a presentation last December that focused on foreign influences on research integrity. The NIH specifically highlighted the Thousand Talents program, including a case at Duke University that was previously reported by NBC News.
"The focus of current concern is China - but this issue is not unique to China," the NIH said in its Powerpoint presentation.
Before the MD Anderson moved to remove the researchers, a separate medical doctor left the facility while under a federal investigation.
Dr. Keping Xie, 55, a gastroenterology professor, is suspected of funneling advanced research from the facility to the Chinese government, according to U.S. officials briefed on the probe.
Xie had been charged by local law enforcement with possession of child pornography, but those charges were eventually dropped.
Xie’s attorney, Nathan Mays, told NBC News at the time that Xie vehemently denied the child pornography charges and said he was unaware of any investigation into Xie by federal authorities for any type of espionage.
Xie had also been a member of the Thousand Talents program.
When NBC News reported on Dr. Xie’s case last October, congressman Michael McCaul, the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he had been briefed on the investigation. “This is a systematic effort by the Chinese government to get into our medical facilities, our research development facilities, academics as well,” McCaul said.
Shortly before Xie was charged in August, the FBI Houston field office conducted an unprecedented public briefing with leaders of Houston's medical, science, and academic institutions.
In announcing the briefing, the bureau said, "The FBI works closely with private partners and government agencies to ensure that federally funded research grants are guarded and protected against unscrupulous overseas enemies." The press release did not cite a specific case.
At the briefing, Pisters, the head of the MD Anderson Cancer Center, said: "We have an obligation to the people of Texas — and to all people facing a cancer diagnosis — to do everything possible to protect our resources and to safely and securely advance our mission to end cancer."
An unclassified FBI memo obtained by NBC News says, "Chinese Talent Programs pose a serious threat to U.S. businesses and universities through economic espionage and theft of IP."
The memo cites a case involving a Chinese national who was convicted of stealing an experimental drug from the Medical College of Wisconsin. The drug is used to treat cancer.
Some Chinese Americans say the crackdown amounts to racial profiling and that it hinders groundbreaking research.
"Scientific research depends on the free flow of ideas," Frank H. Wu, president of the New York-based Committee of 100, a group of influential Chinese Americans, told the newspaper. "Our national interest is best advanced by welcoming people, not by racial stereotyping based on where a person comes from."
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