Ex-Penn Researcher Gets Year in Prison for Stealing Cancer Research Funds

It's your classic "get DOD grant money to validate presumptive oligonucleotide primers, then sell validated primers for profit" scheme.

Former Penn doctor Steven W. Johnson has been sentenced to a year and one day in prison for stealing from a federal government project that funded ovarian cancer research.

Johnson, 50, pleaded guilty in April. The Elkins Park resident was a Penn School of Medicine employee from 1998 to 2010. As part of his research, Johnson would have to validate presumptive oligonucleotide primers, which are used to identify gene expression patterns. (Yes, the oldest trick in the book, using your experience as a oligonucleotide primer researcher to defraud the federal government. No wonder he was caught.)

As with much science, the process of validating oligonucleotide primers is complicated, expensive and time-consuming. In 2005, and without Penn’s knowledge, Johnson started a for-profit company that advertised validated primers for sale. He then got a federal grant from the Department of Defense for ovarian cancer research.

Johnson admitted to purchasing thousands of unvalidated oligonucleotide primers with the federal grant. He used Penn’s equipment to validate them, then sold them through his for-profit company; the complaint last year cited 10 instances.

A judge also ordered Johnson to pay $69,379.02 in restitution, as well as a dreaded $100 special assessment. The DOD granted his research project $655,000 over two years.