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Indian scientist arrested in US for 'DNA theft'

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April 08, 2005 13:14 IST

A visiting Indian scientist in a US university has been arrested for allegedly stealing vials containing DNA samples of tuberculosis organisms and computer discs containing research material.

Singh Lakshman Meena, 33, a research scientist at the University of Central Florida, has been made to give up his passport after spending nearly two weeks in jail, media reports said.

Meena has been accused of taking eight vials of cloned DNA pieces from a tuberculosis organism that could be used to develop drugs to fight TB, police said. He also allegedly took disks with research information in them.

Meena was arrested on March 22, two days before he planned to leave for India, on charges of offence against intellectual property, petty theft and obstruction by false information.

He had a Wendy's plastic bag on him and it was full of DNA vials. It was also full of manuscripts and notebooks, officials at the UCF police department said.

The UCF professor of biology, who has been on a yearlong research fellowship sponsored by the Government of India at the UCF's Biomolecular Science Center in Orlando, researching TB genes, was ordered in court on Tuesday to remain in the Orange County area and surrender his passport. The bail for him was set at $ 3,500.

The US government considers the TB organism as a potential weapon for bio-terrorism and authorities are trying to determine what Meena intended to do with DNA.

The dean of the biomedical sciences department of the University claimed Meena stole the material. He said the material could be used in bio-terrorism.

However, Biomolecular Science Center's Director Pappachan E Kolattukudy allayed fears that the material could be a potential source of bio-terrorism. The vials were valuable but did not contain anything dangerous, he said.

A source close to the case said federal investigators have checked out Meena and don't consider him a terrorist threat.

Some UCF biomedical researchers alleged Meena took the materials, deleted files from the research lab's computer, and then lied about it.

Meena's lawyer Dean Mosley, however, said Meena is a respected research scientist who was simply taking his own work back to India and he failed to fill out the proper transfer paperwork.

"This is not about any kind of terrorism or a bio-terrorist situation. This is just one scientist trying to show the university in India and the government, 'This is what you paid for'," Mosley said.

The head of UCF's bioresearch lab said security changes have been made at the research facility in the wake of the incident.

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