‘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

Con­quer­ing a silent killer: HDV and Eiger Bio­Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals

Hepatitis delta, also known as hepatitis D, is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) that results in the most severe form of human viral hepatitis for which there is no approved therapy.

HDV is a single-stranded, circular RNA virus that requires the envelope protein (HBsAg) of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) for its own assembly. As a result, hepatitis delta virus (HDV) infection occurs only as a co-infection in individuals infected with HBV. However, HDV/HBV co-infections lead to more serious liver disease than HBV infection alone. HDV is associated with faster progression to liver fibrosis (progressing to cirrhosis in about 80% of individuals in 5-10 years), increased risk of liver cancer, and early decompensated cirrhosis and liver failure.
HDV is the most severe form of viral hepatitis with no approved treatment.
Approved nucleos(t)ide treatments for HBV only suppress HBV DNA, do not appreciably impact HBsAg and have no impact on HDV. Investigational agents in development for HBV target multiple new mechanisms. Aspirations are high, but a functional cure for HBV has not been achieved nor is one anticipated in the forseeable future. Without clearance of HBsAg, anti-HBV investigational treatments are not expected to impact the deadly course of HDV infection anytime soon.

No­var­tis is ax­ing 150 ear­ly dis­cov­ery jobs as CNI­BR shifts fo­cus to the de­vel­op­ment side of R&D

Novartis is axing some 150 early discover jobs in Shanghai as it swells its staff on the drug development side of the equation in China. And the company is concurrently beefing up its investment in China’s fast-growing biotech sector with a plan to add to its investments in local VCs.

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No­var­tis is eye­ing a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar Med­Co buy­out as Jer­sey biotech nears NDA — re­ports

To get from Novartis’ US headquarters to the Medicines Company, you make a left out of a square concrete building on NJ-Route 10, follow it past the sun orange veranda of Jersey’s Hot Bagels and the inexplicable green Vermont cabin that houses the Whippany Railway Museum until you turn right and immediately arrive at a rectangular glass building. It should take you about 12 minutes.

Reports are out that Novartis may be making that trip. Amid a torrent of Phase III data burnishing MedCo’s chances at a blockbuster cholesterol drug,  Bloomberg News is reporting that Novartis is looking to acquire the Jersey-based biotech.

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UP­DAT­ED: In a land­mark first glimpse of hu­man da­ta from Ver­tex, CRISPR/Cas9 gene ther­a­py sig­nals ear­ly ben­e­fit

Preliminary data on two patients with blood disorders that have been administered with Vertex and partner CRISPR Therapeutics’ gene-editing therapy suggest the technology is safe and effective, marking the first instance of the benefit of the use of CRISPR/Cas9 technology in humans suffering from disease.

Patients in these phase I/II studies give up peripheral blood from which hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells are isolated. The cells are tinkered with using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, and the edited cells — CTX001 — are infused back into the patient via a stem cell transplant. The objective of CTX001 is to fix the errant hemoglobin gene in patents with two blood disorders: beta-thalassemia and sickle cell disease, by unleashing the production of fetal hemoglobin.

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Badrul Chowdhury. FDA via Flickr

As­traZeneca los­es an­oth­er ex­ec­u­tive to biotech, as Badrul Chowd­hury moves to Savara

Another executive is migrating from the echelons of Big Pharma to the corridors of small biotech.

In April 2018, Badrul Chowdhury took his more than two decades of experience at the FDA to AstraZeneca, where he took on the role of senior vice president and chief physician-scientist for respiratory, inflammation and autoimmunity late-stage development in biopharmaceuticals R&D.

After about a year and a half in this role, Chowdhury is moving to a small Texas biotech called Savara, where he will serve as chief medical officer.

Yiannis Kiachopoulos and Artur Saudabayev, co-founders of Causaly

Lon­don AI up­start, which counts No­var­tis as a cus­tomer, can teach your com­put­er to read

When Amazon developed a machine-learning tool to make its recruitment process more efficient — the man-made system absorbed the gender-bias of its human makers, and the project was aborted. In the field of biopharmaceuticals, the way researchers train their machine learning algorithms can skew the outcome of predictions. But before those predictions can be made, the engine must learn to read to make sense of explosive volume of knowledge out there.

Burt Adelman. Novo Ventures

Here's a $25M seed fund aimed at back­ing some brash new drug ideas out of the Broad

As a former academic and a seasoned drug developer, Burt Adelman knew when he was recruited as a senior advisor to Novo Ventures in 2017 that one of his key priorities needs to be introducing the fund to the network he was so deeply embedded in.

“I was thinking long and hard on how can I, as a Boston insider, help Novo really get inside the ecosystem of Boston biotech?” he recalled in an interview with Endpoints News.

Welling­ton lines up a $393M bankroll for its next round of pri­vate biotech bets — and they’re like­ly think­ing big

Wellington Management made some uncustomary waves at the beginning of the year when it threw its considerable weight against Bristol-Myers Squibb’s $74 billion Celgene buyout. But after Bristol-Myers’ biggest investor conceded that game to the influential proxy firms involved, they’re now going to end the year by rolling out a big new investment fund for a new stable of fledgling biotechs on the private side of the industry.

As uter­ine race with Ab­b­Vie heats up, My­ovant eyes FDA ap­proval with tri­al re­sults from prostate can­cer

Myovant has long had a secret weapon in its uterine rivalry with AbbVie: Men.

While the small Swiss biotech has jockeyed with the Illinois-based giant for a foothold in the endometriosis and uterine fibroid therapy market, the company has been developing the same lead compound, relugolix, for use in one of the most common cancers for the uterus-less: prostate cancer. Today, Myovant is out with positive topline results from its big Phase III trial on the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) antagonist. They say they’ve reached every primary and secondary endpoint with p values less than .0001.