In a rare move, federal prosecutors have charged a scientist with fraud. The charges stem from falsified data which had attracted millions of dollars in research grants.
Normally the U.S. Office of Research Integrity will investigate allegations of research misconduct, although since they do not have prosecution authority, charges are rare. In this case, the alleged fraud was so blatant and involved such a huge amount of money that federal prosecutors felt they had to step in.
The charges are based on years of research by Dong-Pyou Han, a former laboratory manager at Iowa State University and a native of South Korea. Han’s research into an HIV vaccine was promising and gained widespread attention. The hope was that the successful HIV vaccine could be administered to at-risk people around the globe, preventing them from catching the devastating disease. Because of the urgency for HIV treatments and vaccines, and because the research showed great promise, Han’s lab secured millions of dollars in grants from the National Institutes of Health to continue their research.
However, another laboratory eventually looked into Han’s work and found irregularities. They became convinced that the data was purposely falsified.
As Han was investigated, he admitted to placing human antibodies in rabbit blood to make it look like his vaccine was working. He had sent the samples to another lab who verified the results. However, in reality, Han’s vaccine appears to be a dud, which is a big disappointment for the scientific community and those affected by HIV and AIDS. Han claims he acted alone, without the knowledge of the lead researcher Michael Cho, and that he simply wanted the results of his research to look better.
Last week, prosecutors went ahead and charged Han with four counts of making false statements. If convicted, the scientist could face up to five years in prison for each charge. Han failed to appear in court Tuesday for his arraignment, apparently due to a mix-up, so he has another court date scheduled next week. Han had already surrendered his passport.
The case could cause a setback in HIV research after Han and other researchers spent many years and plenty of money chasing false hope. It could also cause public distrust for scientists, most of whom do not set out to intentionally defraud the system.
Despite the disappointing news about the promising vaccine, HIV and AIDS research will continue in other laboratories. The next most promising vaccine comes from a lab in Thailand, which has succeeded in protecting about a third of its recipients from infection. However, this rate is not high enough for widespread vaccination programs. An HIV vaccine remains a priority for scientific research as people in both developed and developing countries continue to contract the serious disease at a rate of about 6,300 new cases a day.
In light of the fraud case, researchers are calling for greater transparency in the funding process, as well as more peer review of the grant recipients.
The disappointing news for HIV research comes just before National HIV Testing Day on Friday. The event is meant to bring awareness to the risks of HIV and to encourage people to get tested.