U.S. Attorney's Office
Eastern District of Pennsylvania
(215) 861-8200
October 14, 2015

Cancer Research Doctor Sentenced for Theft

PHILADELPHIA—Steven W. Johnson, Ph.D., 50, of Elkins Park, PA, was sentenced yesterday to 12 months and one day in prison for theft from a program receiving federal funds. Johnson pleaded guilty on April 30, 2015 to one count of misusing federal funds for cancer research to conduct a for-profit business. In addition to the prison term, U.S. District Court Judge Paul S. Diamond also ordered Dr. Johnson to pay restitution of $69,379.02 and a $100 special assessment.

Dr. Johnson was an employee of the University of Pennsylvania, in its School of Medicine, from approximately October 1998 to February 2010. Dr. Johnson conducted cancer research. For some of his research activities, Dr. Johnson would need to test or “validate” (or to have another University of Pennsylvania employee validate for him) presumptive oligonucleotide “primers,” which are used to identify gene expression patterns. The process of validating oligonucleotide primers requires expertise, time, effort, and specialized equipment, including a polymerase chain reaction (“PCR”) machine. In approximately August 2005, while an employee of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Johnson started a for-profit company, which advertised human, mouse, and rat validated primers for sale. (The University had no knowledge of Dr. Johnson’s for-profit company.) In approximately 2006, while an employee of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Johnson applied for a federal grant from the Department of Defense (“DOD”) to study a new approach to treating ovarian cancer. Between 2007 and 2009, Dr. Johnson purchased thousands of unvalidated oligonucleotide primers, which were charged to the federal grant. Dr. Johnson used the University of Pennsylvania’s laboratory equipment, including a polymerase chain reaction (“PCR”) machine, which also had been purchased with federal grant funds, to test, or “validate,” the primers. Johnson then sold the validated primers to customers of his for-profit company.

The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Karen L. Grigsby.

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