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Cancer researcher gets time served for lying to authorities about taking biological vials from Boston hospital

A cancer specialist from China was headed home Wednesday after being sentenced to time served in federal court in Boston for lying to investigators about taking biological vials from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he briefly conducted research on a student visa, officials said.

US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling’s office said the defendant, Zaosong Zheng, 31, was sentenced Wednesday to the 87 days he had spent in custody following his arrest in December 2019. He was also ordered removed from the United States, the statement said.

Zheng’s lawyer, Norman S. Zalkind, said his client planned to fly back to China Wednesday night. Zalkind insisted Zheng “didn’t steal anything, and the government knows it.”


Zheng early last month pleaded guilty to a sole count of making false, fictitious or fraudulent statements, Lelling’s office said in a statement.

He was arrested Dec. 10, 2019, at Logan International Airport, one day after prosecutors said he “stole [19] vials of biological research, hid the vials in his luggage, and attempted to take them out of the United States aboard a flight destined for China.”

The charge he pleaded guilty to stems from the fact that after federal agents discovered the vials hidden in a sock in one of his bags and asked if he was traveling with biological items or research, he falsely said “no.”

Later, Lelling’s office said, Zheng “admitted he had stolen the vials from a lab at Beth Israel. Zheng stated that he intended to bring the vials to China to use them to conduct research in his own laboratory and publish the results under his own name.”

But Zalkind noted that prosecutors dropped an additional charge of smuggling goods from the US, something he said they “never would have done” if they had evidence he’d actually stolen the material.


“It was an overreaction against Chinese” researchers, Zalkind said in a brief interview.

In a recent sentencing memo filed with the court, prosecutors asked that Zheng be sentenced to time served and ordered removed from the country.

“When Zheng was charged, the government had not yet analyzed what Zheng took from Beth Israel,” the filing said. “Analysis has now been completed and shows that Zheng took DNA expression vectors, which he likely made. A DNA expression vector is a tool used to insert a string of DNA into a gene. Expression vectors can be made inexpensively by someone with limited biomedical training. What Zheng took had little value.”

But while the material in question may not have been significant, prosecutors wrote, his conduct certainly was.

Despite his crime, the government wrote, Zheng also has much to offer society. And, prosecutors said, he has no prior criminal history.

“He is a medical doctor and biomedical researcher who has the knowledge and training to benefit those in need,” prosecutors wrote. “Zheng has served three months in jail and will be deported upon entry of judgment.”

Zheng was released from custody in March of 2020 on $40,000 cash bail, records show.

Beth Israel said at the time of his guilty plea that the hospital’s “deeply proud of the breadth and depth of our research programs,” and that any “efforts to compromise research undermine the hard work of our faculty and staff to advance patient care. We are grateful for the diligence and professionalism of federal law enforcement in this case.”


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.