A cancer centre in Houston, Texas, fired three of its scientists over allegations they were stealing research data for China.

The president of MD Anderson Cancer Centre, Peter Pisters, told the Houston Chronicle that the federal National Institutes of Health contacted the centre in 2018 with concerns of potential conflicts of interest regarding unreported foreign income by five researchers and faculty members.

“As stewards of taxpayer dollars invested in biomedical research, we have an obligation to follow up,” Mr Pisters said, referring to how the cancer centre received $148m (£114m) in National Institute of Health grants last year.

The newspaper reported that all three sacked scientists were ethnically Chinese. Two of them resigned ahead of termination proceedings, and the third is challenging the dismissal. Of the other two of the five, officials determined termination was not necessary for one, and the other remains under investigation.

It is not clear if any of them face federal charges or deportation.

An FBI spokeswoman in Houston, Christina Garza, said on Saturday that the agency “does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation”.

The Houston Chronicle’s report did not say what evidence of intellectual property theft, much less theft for the Chinese government, was uncovered at the facility.

Chinese Americans said the crackdown amounted to racial profiling.

“Scientific research depends on the free flow of ideas,” Frank H Wu, president of the New York-based Committee of 100, a group of influential Chinese Americans, told the Chronicle

“Our national interest is best advanced by welcoming people, not by racial stereotyping based on where a person comes from.”