Ex-Merck scientist accused of stealing trade secrets on Keytruda, raising threat of 10-year prison term

A former Merck immuno-oncology director faces up to 10 years in prison for allegedly stealing trade secrets about Keytruda and other drugs. The researcher is charged with stealing and transmitting trade secrets around the time he left Merck to take up a position at AstraZeneca in 2019.

In materials published by the Department of Justice (DOJ), a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent sets out the case against Shafat Quadri, Ph.D. The former director of medical and scientific affairs, immune oncology, is accused of copying and removing thousands of files containing proprietary information. Quadri allegedly sent files to personal email addresses and an account owned by his new employer.    

Neither Merck nor AstraZeneca are named in the paperwork. However, all the details disclosed in the materials, such as the fact proprietary information on Keytruda clinical trial KEYNOTE119 was among the files found at Quadri’s house, points to Merck being the unnamed, New Jersey-based company referenced in the document. Similarly, a LinkedIn résumé that maps perfectly onto the employment history of Quadri shows the researcher left Merck for AstraZeneca. 

The case against Quadri centers on the period in September and October 2019 when, after four years working on immuno-oncology clinical trials at Merck, he resigned to take up a post at a competitor. 

Allegedly, Quadri then emailed at least 12 documents to his Gmail and Yahoo accounts. The files included confidential materials related to the company’s leading cancer asset, C1-3475. Merck’s Keytruda was code-named MK-3475 during development. Days later, Quadri is accused of sending at least three files containing proprietary information to an email controlled by his new employer. 

Merck’s security system flagged up file transfers allegedly made by Quadri, leading it to investigate his activities. The investigation led Merck to claim Quadri had transferred files related to four drugs. Information about the molecules in the DOJ materials suggest three of the drugs were Lenvima, Lynparza and the anti-LAG3 antibody MK-4280. The fourth drug is a NaV1.7 pain asset code-named C1-2075. Merck partnered with Bionomics on NaV1.7 pain drugs in 2013.

The FBI got involved after Merck contacted them. Months later, the FBI searched Quadri’s house. The search allegedly uncovered two USB drives used to transfer files and hard copies of confidential documents, many of which related to Keytruda. 

If convicted, Quadri could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.