Research Fraud Exposed by Harvard

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A huge HIV vaccine research fraud study was exposed by a group at Harvard University.  Federal prosecutors charging a former Iowa State University laboratory manager, Dong-Pyou Han, of research fraud and misconduct, took rare steps. Han is accused of falsifying data leading to millions of dollars in grant money for HIV research.

Research fraud and misconduct charges filed against scientist

The indictment claims Han intentionally falsified data; his research fraud and misconduct caused his colleagues to make false statements in progress reports and in a federal grant application to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Han was charged with four counts of making false statements.

Han started work with a team of researchers testing HIV vaccines on rabbits in 2008, at Case Western Reserve University,in Cleveland, Ohio.  The team’s leader, Michael Cho, was able to receive funding from NIH for the study.  In 2009, Cho sent blood samples of apparently verified positively affected vaccinated rabbits to Duke University. The reports showed the rabbits developed antibodies to HIV, which “flabbergasted” NIH officials. Furthermore, according to the complaint against Han the tainted blood samples were viewed as “a major breakthrough in HIV/AIDS vaccine research.”

Cho and his team, which included Han, were recruited to further their research at Iowa State University, in 2009. The research team received a five-year NIH $5 million grant and NIH requested they continue their work. However, in January 2013, a group at Harvard University made the discovery that the blood specimen samples of positive impacted HIV vaccinated rabbits to Duke University were spiked with human antibodies.

Iowa State began an investigation and identified Han as the person sending Duke University spiked samples. Hans later confessed in a letter stating he acted alone and started the fraud in 2009, “because he wanted (results) to look better.” He wrote, “I was foolish, coward, and not frank.”  The research team leader, Michael Cho, was not accused of research fraud or any unlawful activity. He proclaimed he was angered and devastated he wasted years on the research, but he vowed he would continue his work.

Han’s research fraud and misconduct caused researchers to chase false leads and wasted millions of tax dollars, as well as years of hard work and millions of dollars from the National Institutes of Health’s grant money.  He spiked samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies in trying to show great promise for an experimental HIV vaccine.  Fortunately, the team at Harvard University was able to show what appeared to be groundbreaking science, was in fact a sham.

Discovering the HIV vaccine

The only HIV vaccine showing slight success was found in 2009, in Thailand.  This vaccine only protects about a third of the recipients from infection; however, presently it is not good enough for use, so researchers are searching various approaches.

Nonetheless, research fraud and misconduct cases undermine the public’s trust in researchers, according to Mike Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and consumer advocate. He states, “It’s a pretty extraordinary case involving clear, intentional falsification. The wool was pulled over many people’s eyes.”

Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, an organization that tracts research fraud and misconduct explains, “It’s an important case because it is extremely rare for scientists found to have committed fraud to be held accountable by the actual criminal justice system.” Oransky recalls in the last three decades, there have only been a handful of similar prosecutions.

In a statement about this case, the medical director for the AIDS Research Alliance, Stephen Brown said, “Han’s case also indicates the need for greater transparency and oversight of the peer review funding process, which is cloaked in secrecy and often leads to large sums being given to favored organizations, despite a lack of output.” NIH research funding is scarce. Future research funding requests will involve fierce competition to be awarded funds from NIH and other organization willing and capable of providing the necessary endowments.

Due to a paperwork mistake, Hans did not show up when he was to be arraigned in Des Moines, Iowa last week; however, he is expected to be in Ohio court this coming week. Hans is 57, a native of South Korea and now lives in Cleveland. After his arrest, he surrendered his passport. If convicted, Han can face a five-year sentence for each of his four misconduct charges.

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George Zapo, CPH
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George Zapo, CPH is certified in Public Health Promotion & Education. George focuses on writing informative articles promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles. Read more of George's articles at his website: http://georgezapo.com.