News of an Iowa scientist’s fraudulent research, once touted as a promising development in the quest for an HIV vaccine, has left his peers disappointed and worried about the fallout.
Mahmoud Ghannoum, an HIV researcher at Case Western University, told Healthline that the actions of Iowa State University scientist Dong-Pyou Han will fuel mistrust among lawmakers already wary of the benefits of funding scientific research.
Han has admitted that he took antibodies from human blood and inserted them into the blood of rabbits to make an experimental HIV vaccine appear effective. But when other scientists duplicated his research in a rigorous but standard process known as peer review, they discovered his deception.
Han and his superior, Michael Cho, were recruited from Case Western University. Both had previously worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Ghannoum said he did not know Han, but did interact with Cho, whom he called “a nice guy.” Cho has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
A U.S. senator from Iowa is demanding answers from the NIH, which funneled millions of taxpayer dollars toward Han's project.
An Impossible Bluff
Bruce Torbett, a scientist in the department of immunology and microbial science at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., said Han must have known he would be caught. “Anything to do with vaccines, HIV, small molecules, for it to move forward it has to be extremely scrutinized,” he told Healthline.
Torbett said he had not heard of an example of fraudulent science so outrageous since an infamous incident at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 1974. In that case, scientist William T. Summerlin took a black felt-tip pen and marked the skin of white mice. The experiment was supposed to show that the white mice had not rejected skin transplants from black mice in what would have been a breakthrough in immunosuppression. A lab assistant with an alcohol-dipped cotton swab blew Summerlin’s cover.
At the time, New York Times journalist Jane Brody described it as a “medical Watergate,” fueled by a scientist desperate for acclaim and research funds for his institution.
Torbett noted that direct oversight of each scientist, particularly in large laboratories, can be challenging. “I don’t think the principal investigator was really aware of what was going on,” he said.
Ghannoum said it comes down to issues of trust. “Sometimes you trust people, and you don’t really look at everything. That’s the problem," he said. "But if something very interesting happens in my lab, I say, ‘This is big! We should repeat it.’”
A Funding System 'Cloaked in Secrecy'
Medical director of the AIDS Research Alliance Dr. Stephen Brown called 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.”
Torbett disagreed, saying he believes the system works and is “self-correcting.” He said individuals are asked to review grants based on their experience and on having previously obtained an NIH grant.
“The mixture’s enough that if you’re pushing your own science and that of your buddies, others are pushing their own agendas,” he said. “It’s somewhat of a sports match. You want to champion someone who is competing extremely well.”
He added the process is “fairly esoteric” and decisions tend to be made in ways that “push the field forward,” and “allow individuals in the lay community to say ‘They’re really making breakthroughs.’”
Han's Arraignment Set for Friday
Han was arrested June 16 in Cleveland. He has been indicted on four felony counts of making false statements and is being represented by a public defender.
Han is set to appear Tuesday in U.S. district court in Des Moines, Iowa. This will be his first appearance, and a Korean interpreter will be present to help him communicate with the court. He is scheduled to be arraigned at 11 a.m. before Chief Magistrate Judge Celeste F. Bremer.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wants answers about how millions of dollars in NIH grants will be recouped from the botched experiment. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, told Grassley in a letter that the university must return $496,832.17 used to pay Han’s salary. But the letter offered few specifics and did not confirm exactly how much money had been provided for the project or how it could be recovered.
The amount of money allocated by Congress to the NIH has been cut in recent years due to the economic downturn and federal budget cuts known as sequestration. Ghannoum fears that the incident involving Han could make things worse. “For people who do not believe in science, it’s going to be, ‘hey, see, we told you,’” he said.
Ghannoum said the issue of dwindling funding for medical research has impacted the entire nation. “People are getting discouraged and are leaving science. Some are going to Europe, and immigrants are going to Europe," he said. "In the long run this is a very big story.”