Two crop scientists from China are accused of trying to steal rice seed samples from a biopharmaceutical research facility in Kansas. Federal charges have been filed against the two men in U.S. District Court, in Kansas City, Kansas.
47-year-old Weiqiang Zhang and 63-year-old Wengui Yan are charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets. The target was a research facility in Junction City operated by Ventria Bioscience, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. According to U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found stolen seeds in the luggage of a Chinese delegation preparing to board a plane for China last August.
The two suspects had arranged visits to several Midwestern agricultural facilities and universities, according to the complaint. A search of Zhang’s residence in Manhattan, Kansas, this Wednesday turned up more rice seeds similar to those the visiting delegation was attempting to take home. Ventria President and CEO Scott Deeter confirms that Zhang was a Ventria employee.
“We’re cooperating with this," says Deeter. "We need to let the facts come to light, and see what the facts are before we make any decisions on our side.”
Zhang was hired by Ventria as a rice breeder in 2008. What’s so special about the rice developed by Ventria? Deeter says it’s genetically modified to grow proteins for medical and pharmaceutical uses—and to do it very efficiently.
“It’s a really important technology," according to Deeter. "It’s foundational. I would say between $1 and $2 billion has been invested in the ability of plants to become a factory for these types of products.”
One of the proteins grown by the rice, albumin, is already being produced and marketed commercially, under the trade name Cellastim. It’s advertised as an animal-free supplement to help cell cultures—stem cells, for example—grow better. The other protein is a recombinant version of a key component of mother’s milk, called lactoferrin. It’s still in clinical trials. In a 2006 interview for the KPR series, “Kansas Health: A Prescription for Change”, Deeter said this product could reduce the death toll from diarrhea—which he describes as the second-leading killer of children around the world.
“The product that we’re developing will not only rehydrate the child, but also, we believe, help them recover from their illness sooner than they would just by being rehydrated," Deeter says. "And we need to make that affordable, so that we can distribute it to the world’s population.”
Deeter hopes to start marketing the recombinant lactoferrin as soon as 2017. Farmers in the Junction City area have been growing the rice for the processing plant since 2007. Deeter won’t say how many acres are planted, or how many bushels harvested, but it’s enough to meet his company’s needs. He’s relieved that the federal agents were able to intercept the patented seeds before researchers in China could get their hands on them.
“The investment that researchers and inventors put into these types of technologies need to be respected," says Deeter. "We have a patent system, and we have a process of maintaining the secrecy of some of these trade secrets in order that they may be turned into valuable products down the road. I understand the attraction of short-cutting that process, but then you essentially devalue innovation.”
If found guilty of conspiracy to steal trade secrets, Zhang and Yan could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000. Meanwhile, six other men from China, including the CEO of a seed corn subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate, were charged yesterday with conspiring to steal patented seed corn from two of the nation's leading seed developers, according to The Associated Press. Deeter says he’s not aware of any connection between the two cases.