Rheumatology professor arrested over research grant overlap

Professor Zheng

A rheumatology professor at a US university has been arrested by the FBI and held in prison on charges that he planned to transfer his research developments in autoimmune disease to China.

Professor Song Guo Zheng, 57, who worked in lupus research at Ohio State University College of Medicine, was arrested by Federal agents on May 22 as he prepared to board a flight to China.

In a statement, the Department of Justice said it had ordered Professor Zheng be held in custody to face trial on a charge of grant fraud “for not disclosing that he was engaged in a sophisticated scheme to use approximately $4.1 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop China’s expertise in the areas of rheumatology and immunology.”

Professor Zheng faces ten years in prison if found guilty of accepting NIH funding for his research into regulatory T cells in autoimmune diseases while not declaring that he had also accepted a grant from China’s medical research funding agency.

He is also charged with making false statements for accepting a role in a Chinese science talent program at the same time as he was employed at Ohio State University.

The case is the latest in the Trump Whitehouse crusade against US-based scientists who accept research funding and positions with Chinese institutions and agencies while receiving NIH research funding.

According to his academic profile, Professor Zheng has a research interests in the effects of  CD4+ cells in the generation and function of regulatory T cells, which he proposed may potentially lead to regulatory T cells replacing immunosuppressive drugs in the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as SLE.

An affidavit alleges that, since 2013, Zheng has been participating in a Chinese Talent Plan, a program the FBI claims was established by the Chinese government to recruit individuals with knowledge or access to foreign technology intellectual property.  It claims that Professor Zheng used the research he had done in the US to benefit China and that he allegedly failed to disclose conflicts of interest or his foreign commitments to his university employers or to the NIH.

“Yet again, we are faced with a professor at a US university, who is a member of a Chinese Talent Plan, allegedly and deliberately failing to disclose his relationship with a Chinese university and receipt of funds from the Chinese government in order to obtain millions of dollars in US grant money designed to benefit the health and well-being of the people of the United States – not to be hijacked to supplement the research goals of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.

“This case, like too many others, should serve as a reminder that the United States government takes seriously the obligation of truthfulness and transparency on grant applications, and those who violate the law to benefit China or any other foreign nation will be held accountable.”

David M. DeVillers, US Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio said the complaint would allege that Professor Zheng was preparing to flee the country after he learned that his university was looking into whether he was complying with rules governing taxpayer-funded research grants.

When he was arrested, Professor Zheng was allegedly carrying three large bags, a small suitcase and a briefcase containing two laptops, three mobile phones, several USB drives, several silver bars, expired Chinese passports for his family, deeds for property in China and other items.

“This is our office’s third recent case involving the illegal transfer of intellectual property and research to China. This underscores our commitment to work with the FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services, and our research institutions to protect our country’s position as a global leader in research and innovation, and to punish those who try to exploit and undermine that position,” said Mr DeVilliers.

“The taxpayers of the United States are the real victims when researchers defraud our government and exploit our system to benefit China,” stated FBI Cincinnati Special Agent in Charge Chris Hoffman.

“The cutting-edge technologies that are being developed in our country must be carefully protected from our foreign adversaries and the FBI will continue to work with our partners to safeguard these important innovations.”

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