‘I was shocked’: Con­tro­ver­sy brews at Emory af­ter promi­nent Chi­nese neu­ro­sci­en­tists are oust­ed over dis­clo­sure is­sues

It’s what Chi­nese sci­en­tists work­ing in the US have been dread­ing since MD An­der­son oust­ed three of its Asian fac­ul­ty mem­bers fol­low­ing NIH-di­rect­ed in­ves­ti­ga­tions: A sec­ond pres­ti­gious in­sti­tu­tion has closed down a promi­nent lab and ter­mi­nat­ed the two Chi­na-born re­searchers head­ing the lab.

The news, com­ing out of Emory Uni­ver­si­ty, is once again stir­ring up in­dig­na­tion, be­wil­der­ment and anx­i­ety among Chi­nese aca­d­e­mics and ne­ti­zens alike, not least be­cause the oust­ed pro­fes­sors have gone pub­lic with their side of the sto­ry, ques­tion­ing how the school han­dled the fir­ing, dis­put­ing ac­cu­sa­tions and ex­press­ing their wor­ry. As a con­se­quence, sev­er­al post­docs from Chi­na work­ing in their lab have al­so been asked to leave the coun­try.

Xi­ao­jiang Li Emory

Xi­ao­jiang Li and Shi­hua Li were 23-year vet­er­ans of Emory and not­ed neu­ro­sci­en­tists spe­cial­iz­ing in Hunt­ing­ton’s dis­ease. The mar­ried cou­ple, who are now US cit­i­zens, joint­ly ran a lab at Emory that re­cent­ly cre­at­ed a pig mod­el for the ge­net­ic ail­ment that they say rep­re­sents bet­ter test­ing grounds for new treat­ments. Last April, they pub­lished this find­ing in Cell in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ji­nan Uni­ver­si­ty and the Chi­nese Acad­e­my of Sci­ences in Guangzhou.

Xi­ao­jiang Li was giv­ing a speech at Ji­nan, where he is a part-time pro­fes­sor, when The At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion re­port­ed on May 23 that Emory has fired two re­searchers for fail­ing to dis­close fund­ing from and re­search ties with Chi­nese en­ti­ties.

The no­ti­fi­ca­tion ar­rived one week ear­li­er, he told the Chi­nese blog Zhishifen­zi, and on the same day, his lab was shut down. The grad­u­ate stu­dents and post­docs at the scene were de­mand­ed to stop their ex­per­i­ments, va­cate the lab and at­tend in­ter­views with “strangers in suits,” Zhishifen­zi re­port­ed based on con­ver­sa­tions with wit­ness­es.

On May 24, Xi­ao­jiang Li bat back at Emory through a state­ment to Sci­ence, in which he claimed to have dis­closed his Chi­nese re­search ac­tiv­i­ty to the uni­ver­si­ty since 2012 when he be­gan work­ing on non-hu­man pri­mate re­search in Chi­na and co­op­er­at­ed with its in­ves­ti­ga­tion dat­ing back to No­vem­ber 2018.

Shi­hua Li Emory

“I was shocked that Emory Uni­ver­si­ty would ter­mi­nate a tenured pro­fes­sor in such an un­usu­al and abrupt fash­ion and close our com­bined lab con­sist­ing of a num­ber of grad­u­ates and post­doc­tor­al trainees with­out giv­ing me spe­cif­ic de­tails for the rea­sons be­hind my ter­mi­na­tion,” he said, adding he’s re­quest­ed a copy of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

As in the case with MD An­der­son, Emory said it ini­ti­at­ed its own in­ves­ti­ga­tions af­ter the NIH brought sus­pi­cion of mis­con­duct to their at­ten­tion.

The probe at the pres­ti­gious Hous­ton re­search hos­pi­tal in­volved a to­tal of five re­searchers, with con­cerns span­ning vi­o­la­tions of peer re­view con­fi­den­tial­i­ty as well as fail­ure to dis­close for­eign sources of fund­ing and po­ten­tial con­flicts of in­ter­est. Au­thor­i­ties made the call to purge three of them, cleared an­oth­er of sanc­tions, and are still look­ing in­to the last.

Amid a trade war with Chi­na and in­creased na­tion­al vig­i­lance re­gard­ing aca­d­e­m­ic es­pi­onage, the NIH be­gan warn­ing grantee in­sti­tu­tions about sci­en­tists with for­eign ties in 2018, prompt­ing at least 55 to launch their own probes.

“(W)e re­mind uni­ver­si­ties to look close­ly at their or­ga­ni­za­tions to mit­i­gate un­scrupu­lous prac­tices by for­eign en­ti­ties that aim to cap­i­tal­ize on the col­lab­o­ra­tive na­ture of the U.S. bio­med­ical en­ter­prise,” an NIH spokesper­son told End­points News in the wake of MD An­der­son’s ac­tions, which marked the pub­lic in­stance of a US bio­med­ical in­sti­tu­tion sanc­tion­ing its own re­searchers for al­leged threats of for­eign in­flu­ence.

The fate of Xi­ao­jiang Li’s six NIH-fund­ed projects re­mains un­known, as does those of his post­doc re­searchers be­ing force­ful­ly repa­tri­at­ed (one of whom is preg­nant), Xi­ao­jiang Li said to Sci­ence. The pres­i­dent of Ji­nan has pub­licly pledged to host the Li’s en­tire team and pro­vide them with the fa­cil­i­ties and equip­ment to con­tin­ue their work.


Im­age: Emory Uni­ver­si­ty. Shut­ter­stock

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk gestures to the audience after being recognized by President Trump following the successful launch of a Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. (via Getty Images)

Tes­la chief Elon Musk teams up with Covid-19 play­er Cure­Vac to build 'R­NA mi­cro­fac­to­ries'

Elon Musk has joined the global tech crusade now underway to revolutionize vaccine manufacturing — now aimed at delivering billions of doses of a new mRNA vaccine to fight Covid-19. And he’s cutting right to the front.

In a late-night tweet Wednesday, the Tesla chief announced:

Tesla, as a side project, is building RNA microfactories for CureVac & possibly others.

That’s not a lot to go on. But the tweet comes a year after Tesla’s German division in Grohmann and CureVac filed a patent on a “bioreactor for RNA in vitro transcription, a method for RNA in vitro transcription, a module for transcribing DNA into RNA and an automated apparatus for RNA manufacturing.” CureVac, in the meantime, has discussed a variety of plans to build microfactories that can speed up the whole process for a global supply chain.

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George Yancopoulos (Regeneron)

UP­DAT­ED: Re­gen­eron co-founder George Yan­copou­los of­fers a com­bat­ive de­fense of the po­lice at a high school com­mence­ment. It didn’t go well

Typically, the commencement speech at Yorktown Central School District in Westchester — like most high schools — is an opportunity to encourage students to face the future with confidence and hope. Regeneron president and co-founder George Yancopoulos, though, went a different route.

In a fiery speech, the outspoken billionaire defended the police against the “prejudice and bias against law enforcement” that has erupted around the country in street protests from coast to coast. And for many who attended the commencement, Yancopoulos struck the wrong note at the wrong time, especially when he combatively challenged someone for interrupting his speech with a honk for “another act of cowardness.”

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Elias Zerhouni (Photo by Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)

Elias Zer­houni dis­cuss­es ‘am­a­teur hour’ in DC, the de­struc­tion of in­fec­tious dis­ease R&D and how we need to prep for the next time

Elias Zerhouni favors blunt talk, and in a recent discussion with NPR, the ex-Sanofi R&D and ex-NIH chief had some tough points to make regarding the pandemic response.

Rather than interpret them, I thought it would be best to provide snippets straight from the interview.

On the Trump administration response:

It was basically amateur hour. There is no central concept of operations for preparedness, for pandemics, period. This administration doesn’t want to or has no concept of what it takes to protect the American people and the world because it is codependent. You can’t close your borders and say, “OK, we’re going to be safe.” You’re not going to be able to do that in this world. So it’s a lack of vision, basically just a lack of understanding, of what it takes to protect the American people.

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Look­ing for 'ex­ter­nal in­no­va­tion,' Boehringer In­gel­heim re­serves $500M+ for new Shang­hai hub

Now that Boehringer Ingelheim’s bet on contract manufacturing in China has paid off, the German drugmaker is anteing up more to get into the research game.

Boehringer has set aside $507.9 million (€451 million) for a new External Innovation Hub to be built in Shanghai over five years. The site will become one of its “strategic pillars” as the team strives to get 71 approvals — either for new products or indications — by 2030, said Felix Gutsche, president and CEO of Boehringer Ingelheim China.

Sec­ond death trig­gers hold on Astel­las' $3B gene ther­a­py biotech's lead pro­gram, rais­ing fresh con­cerns about AAV

Seven months after Astellas shelled out $3 billion to acquire the gene therapy player Audentes, the biotech company’s lead program has been put on hold following the death of 2 patients taking a high dose of their treatment. And there was another serious adverse event recorded in the study as well, with a total of 3 “older” patients in the study affected.

The incidents are derailing plans to file for a near-term approval, which had been expected right about now.

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Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Patrick Straub/​EPA-EFE/​Shutterstock)

No­var­tis pays $678M for kick­back scheme as Vas Narasimhan tries to dis­tance phar­ma gi­ant from shady be­hav­ior

Novartis has reached another large settlement to resolve misconduct allegations, agreeing to pay more than $678 million to settle claims that it had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lavish dinners, so-called speaking fees and expensive alcohol “that were nothing more than bribes” to get doctors to prescribe Novartis medications.

The top-shelf alcohol and lavish meals included a $3,250 per person night at Nobu in Dallas, a $672-per person dinner at Washington DC’s Smith & Wollensky and a $314 per person meal at Sushi Roku in Pasadena, according to the Justice Department complaint. There were at least 7 trips to Hooters and fishing trips in Alaska and off the Florida coast. Each of these events were supposed to be “speaker programs” where doctors educated other doctors on a drug, but the DOJ alleged many were “bogus” wine-and-dine events where the drug was barely mentioned, if at all.  (“Nobody presented slides on the fishing trips,” the complaint says.)

No­vavax snags Ben Machielse for CMC and pro­motes a trio of staffers; Mar­ty Du­vall lands an­oth­er CEO post at On­copep­tides

Novavax has been making waves recently by securing a $384 million commitment from CEPI to cover R&D and manufacturing for its Covid-19 vaccine while also spending $167 million on a 150,000 square-foot facility. The Maryland biotech continues to shore up its leadership team as well, bringing in Ben Machielse as their EVP of CMC just a couple weeks after nabbing AstraZeneca vet Filip Dubrovsky as their new CMO. Machielse was president and CEO of Vtesse from 2014-17, and before that, he also spent more than 11 years at MedImmune and was EVP of operations for the back half of his tenure.

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Dan Gold, MEI Pharma CEO

De­vel­op­ment part­ners at MEI, Helsinn dump a high-risk PhI­II AML study af­ter con­clud­ing it would fail sur­vival goal

Four years after Switzerland’s Helsinn put $25 million of cash on the table for an upfront and near-term milestone to take MEI Pharma’s drug pracinostat into a long-running Phase III trial for acute myeloid leukemia, the partners are walking away from a clinical pileup.

The drug — an HDAC inhibitor — failed to pass muster during a futility analysis, as researchers concluded that pracinostat combined with azacitidine wasn’t going to outperform the control group in the pivotal.

No­var­tis los­es biosim­i­lar ap­peal as court up­holds a 31-year mo­nop­oly by Am­gen's En­brel

A new court ruling has strengthened Amgen’s grip on the IP estate around Enbrel, keeping biosimilars of the autoimmune and inflammatory drug at bay until 2029.

Novartis, the patent challenger, isn’t throwing in the towel yet. In a statement noting the failed appeal, its generics division Sandoz noted its reviewing options, “including potential appeal to US Supreme Court.”

It’s been almost four years since the FDA approved Erelzi, Sandoz’s copycat version of Enbrel. While sales of the Pfizer-partnered drug in the US — the market Amgen is in charge of — have dipped slightly during that time, it remains a solid megablockbuster with 2019 revenue slightly above $5 billion.