GlaxoSmithKline scientists accused of stealing drug R&D secrets for China scheme

Yu Xue had a hard-earned reputation as a top chemist while she was working for GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) in its Upper Merion, PA, facility. She got her Ph.D. at UNC and her undergraduate degree at Peking University before working on antibody design at the pharma giant.

What GSK didn't know for some time was that Yu Xue--better known as Joyce--was also an accomplished thief during the last four years of her 10-year tenure, according to allegations laid out in a federal indictment filed by the U.S. Attorney's office in Eastern Pennsylvania. 

The federal indictment alleges that Yu Xue worked with another GSK scientist, Lucy Xi, in extracting the work. Tao Li and Yan Mei, both from Nanjing, were also named in the indictment along with Tian Xue of Charlotte, NC.

The indictment alleges that Yu Xue was the ringleader in a scheme aimed at downloading trade secrets onto a thumb drive. They used the information to start enterprises under the Renopharma umbrella name, based in Delaware with offshore entities in China, and emailed the information to confederates in China for them to sell while seeking to lure in investors.

Part of the work she passed along allegedly included work on an anti-HER3 antibody, described in GSK documents as a biobetter. And more confidential GSK papers involved developing and manufacturing other antibody biobetters.

The Chinese government was supportive of Renopharma, providing $300,000 to help get the company started. And Yu Xue, who told others she owned 30% of Renopharma, wanted to get paid for the work.

"Although I am not resigning from my position [at GSK] to go back [to China] at the initial stage, my time and energy spent is not going to be less than anyone else's. As a matter of fact, it will only be more," she wrote in an email. "The risk on the technology and the responsibilities are huge too. Simply using the reasons that I am not returning to China or I have little financial burden to decide not to give me wages doesn't make any sense. If we operate with this methodology, then I will feel like an outsider, like a consultant, and not as a key member of the company. In order to promote motivation, the wage distribution should be that either no one gets paid or everyone gets paid equally. Everyone should give what they can. After reviewing the project proposal, the total for the wage is 1.2 million RMB [Renminbi], split evenly among all three high level managers, each one will get 400,000 RMB which is within your limit. I can leave my 400,000 RMB in the company for you to borrow if you don't have enough funding. Please call me if you disagree."

In 2013, the group exchanged emails about the case of a Wisconsin researcher accused of stealing trade secrets. Then, a little more than two years ago the case of an Eli Lilly ($LLY) scientist raised concerns in GSK, startling the alleged conspirators. 

"Please do not send any DOc contained [sic] GSK data out" and "DO not mention Her3," Yu Xue warned one of her Renopharma colleagues.

Peter Zeidenberg, an attorney representing Yu Xue, cautioned against a rush to judgment.

"Xue has pled not guilty and we'll be contesting these charges," Zeidenberg told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It's one of many cases brought against Chinese Americans in the last several years, some of which have proved to be vastly overstated. I would just remind everybody that these are just allegations."

- read the indictment