WASHINGTON, D.C., and TOKYO--Scientists who study Alzheimer's disease were shocked last week to learn that the U.S. Justice Department has indicted one of their colleagues, Takashi Okamoto, for conspiring "to benefit a foreign government" by transporting "stolen goods" in violation of the U.S. Economic Espionage Act of 1996. Okamoto's peers, who describe him as brilliant but eccentric, are puzzled by the severity of the charges involving material that appears to have no commercial value.
|Accused. Alzheimer's disease researcher Takashi Okamoto was indicted for taking lab samples from the U.S. to a new job in Japan.|
The Japanese-born Okamoto is accused of stealing cell lines and DNA samples from a laboratory at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, where he worked from 1997 to 1999, and taking them to a new job at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) near Tokyo. The indictment says that his goal was "to ensure that RIKEN acquired a competitive advantage over" U.S. scientists studying Alzheimer's disease. The charges depend in part on RIKEN's status as a government entity.
If convicted, Okamoto could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Okamoto has denied the charges through an attorney and seems unlikely to face trial unless he is extradited to the United States. An alleged conspirator, Hiroaki Serizawa, a researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, has been arrested. He also denies the charges and intends to plead innocent in federal court in Cleveland this month, his attorney says. The problems at the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute (LRI) came to light, according to institute director George Stark, after postdocs in Okamoto's lab complained that "reagents were missing or didn't work." The institute conducted its own investigation and called in local police, who "decided the FBI needed to be involved," Stark says.
According to the indictment, Okamoto and a "Dr. A" removed some cell lines and DNA samples from LRI and destroyed others on the night of 8 July 1999. Okamoto allegedly stored four boxes of reagents at the home of a "Dr. B," where Okamoto was living temporarily. The indictment says Okamoto shipped the materials to Serizawa, abruptly resigned his post, and began work at RIKEN. He returned to Kansas City on 16 August 1999, according to the indictment, to retrieve the reagents and take them to RIKEN.
Masao Ito, president of RIKEN's Brain Science Institute, says he was astonished when he heard the charges against Okamoto, a research group leader there. Ito and other RIKEN officials are particularly chagrined at the accusation that RIKEN acted as an agent of the Japanese government for economic espionage. "We have operated with extraordinary openness," he says. RIKEN conducts collaborative research projects with institutions throughout the world, Ito says, and nearly a quarter of its 245 researchers are non-Japanese. "I am seriously worried about this incident having an impact on RIKEN's image," he says.