The secret war against counterfeit science

May 11, 2017

By David Cyranoski

In 2013, Huang Song walked into a printing shop in northwestern Beijing and stumbled upon evidence of a brazen and widespread criminal enterprise. Huang was just 15 kilometres from Beijing’s National Institute of Biological Sciences, where he does synthetic-biology research. Scouting out a small desktop machine to produce the hundreds of labels needed for his experiments, he asked if a certain model could print on heat-resistant paper. The shop owner proudly pulled out some samples he had made for customers using the same machine.

Huang was shocked to see names such as Abcam and Cell Signaling Technology on labels that looked exactly like those on vials of expensive antibodies produced by the Western companies. Although the writing meant nothing to the friendly shop owner, for Huang it directly corroborated what he and a number of his colleagues had long suspected: many of the antibodies sold by Chinese distributors were not what they were supposed to be. Counterfeiters were getting fake and diluted research reagents on to the market, and this shop in Zhongguancun, Beijing’s premier technology park, was one of the places they were buying machines to make their labels. “I had a suspicion. That confirmed it,” Huang says.

China is famous for knock-off DVDs, Louis Vuitton bags and Rolex watches. But counterfeit reagents aren’t on sale in busy public markets. They are sold through sophisticated websites, mixed in with legitimate supplies, and sourced and sold using a network of unwitting partners, such as the Zhongguancun shopkeeper. Even university cleaning staff have been implicated in the hidden process that creates counterfeit laboratory products, including basic chemistry reagents, serum for cell culture and standard laboratory test kits. Although it’s difficult to quantify the effects of this illegal trade, Chinese scientists and some in Europe and North America say that fake products have led them astray, wasting time and materials.

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