By Alex Keown
A second former GlaxoSmithKline scientist has pled guilty to stealing trade secrets as part of a scheme to benefit a startup China-based pharmaceutical company he helped establish.
The U.S. Department of Justice reported that Tao Li of San Diego pled guilty to the charges on Friday. Li is the second to plead guilty to conspiracy to steal trade secrets from the pharmaceutical giant. Those trade secrets were going to be part of the foundation for setting up a company in China called Renopharma. Earlier this month, former GlaxoSmithKline researcher Yu Xue also pled guilty to a single conspiracy charge related to the theft of GSK company secrets.
According to the DOJ, Li and Xue, along with another scientist Yan Mei, established Renopharma in China with the idea of using the GSK secrets to develop cancer therapies. However, the DOJ said Renopharma was a “repository of stolen information” from GSK. The federal agency noted that Renopharma was established using funds from the Chinese government. Some of the stolen GSK secrets included information on a monoclonal antibody under development that was designed to link to HER3 receptors on human body cells. Information Xue allegedly stole from GSK included the protein sequences needed to construct the HER3 product.
According to the DOJ, Xue, who worked as a research scientist developing various biopharmaceutical products for GSK facility from June 2006 until January 2016, sent “a substantial number of GSK’s scientific documents” to Li and Mei at Renopharma in China. The government said that the data stolen from GSK “contained information regarding multiple biopharmaceutical products under development, GSK research data, and GSK processes regarding the research, development, and manufacturing of biopharmaceutical products.”
Li was arrested on Jan. 5, 2016. The government said it seized his computer, which contained “a number of GSK documents containing trade secret and confidential information” that had been sent by Xue.
“The lifeblood of companies like GSK is its intellectual property, and when that property is stolen and transferred to a foreign country, it threatens thousands of jobs here in America,” U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said in a statement.
McSwain added that since Renopharma was financed by the Chinese government, the actions of Xue, Lie and Mei amounted to “a form of economic warfare against American interests.” McSwain said such actions should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
FBI Special Agent Michael T. Harpster, who was among the investigators, noted that the theft of the trade secrets could cause potential harm to GSK’s pipeline. The theft of trade secrets, he said, is to “the detriment of both the company and the patients those drugs might help.”
Li is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 4.
For the one charge Xue pled guilty to, she is facing up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. When BioSpace reported on Xue earlier this month, it was noted that she could also face an additional financial burden if she is forced to pay restitution on the value of those trade secrets – which could add up to $2 billion.