Former GSK cancer scientist admits attempt to steal trade secrets

A scientist who worked at GlaxoSmithKline’s R&D unit in Philadelphia has pleaded guilty to attempting to steal confidential research and funnel it to conspirators in China.

Yu Xue (48) has been accused of sending information on her own research and that of other GSK scientists to her own private email address, as well as to associates Tao Li and Yan Mei, who were co-founders of Nanjing, China-based company Renopharma, according to a Department of Justice statement.

She was fired by GSK after charges were brought against her in 2016. Renopharma was set up in 2012, when Xue was working at GSK’s campus in Upper Merion.

Li—another former GSK scientist—has also been charged in connection with the sharing of confidential materials and will be entering a plea in the coming weeks, according to a Washington Post report. And Xue’s twin sister Tian was also accused of hiding advances paid by Renopharma to Xue, in the original indictment, filed on January 20.

The DoJ says Xue “sent a substantial number of GSK’s scientific documents, some of which contained GSK trade secrets, to Li and Mei at Renopharma” using email and flash drives.

The data concerned “multiple biopharmaceutical products under development, GSK research data, and GSK processes regarding the research, development, and manufacturing of biopharmaceutical products."

Xue has pleaded guilty to just one charge after prosecutors dropped more than two dozen other counts, according to the Post, and she insists she did not know that the material was considered secret. Judge Joel Slomsky agreed with prosecutors, however, that they had shown Xue was aware it was confidential.

A sentencing date has been set for Dec. 18, but a hearing will be held beforehand to gauge the seriousness of the crime and the financial damage caused to GSK. The drugmaker has previously suggested the activity didn’t have any major impact on its business or R&D activity.

The case comes at a time of escalating tensions between the U.S. and China on trade, and the DOJ’s statement will do little to defuse the situation, with U.S. Attorney William McSwain saying that Renopharma was being “bankrolled by the Chinese government.”

“We cannot allow U.S. citizens or foreign nationals to steal sensitive business information and hand it over to competitors in other countries,” he continued. “This sort of economic warfare presents a danger to our economic security, jeopardizes America’s position as a global leader in innovation, and will not be tolerated.”