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Researcher charged in major HIV vaccine fraud case

By Ryan J. Foley

Responding to a major case of research misconduct, federal prosecutors have taken the rare step of filing charges against a scientist after he admitted falsifying data that led to millions in grants and hopes of a breakthrough in AIDS vaccine research.

Investigators say former Iowa State University laboratory manager Dong-Pyou Han has confessed to spiking samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies to make an experimental HIV vaccine appear to have great promise. After years of work and millions in National Institutes of Health grants, another laboratory uncovered irregularities that suggested the results - once hailed as groundbreaking - were bogus.

Han, whose indictment last week surprised some watchdogs, was scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in Des Moines but the hearing was delayed. He is facing four counts of making false statements, each of which carries up to five years in prison.

Han didn't return a message left Tuesday at his home in Cleveland, where he has been living since resigning from the university last fall.

Experts said the fraud was especially brazen and that charges are rarely brought in such cases. The National Institutes of Health said it was currently reviewing what impact the case has had on the research it funds.

"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," said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, which tracks research misconduct.

Oransky, who teaches medical journalism and earned his medical degree at New York University, said there have been only a handful of similar prosecutions in the last 30 years. But he said Han's case was "particularly brazen" and noted that charges are rarely brought because the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which investigates misconduct, doesn't have prosecution authority, and most cases involve smaller amounts of money.

"It's a pretty extraordinary case involving clear, intentional falsification," added Mike Carome, a consumer advocate and director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "The wool was pulled over many people's eyes."

Carome noted that Han's misconduct wasted tax dollars and led to researchers chasing a false lead. He said such cases also undermine the public's trust in researchers.

According to an indictment issued last week, Han's misconduct caused colleagues to make false statements in federal grant applications and progress reports to NIH.

Iowa State has agreed to pay back NIH nearly $500,000 for the cost of Han's salary.

Dr. Stephen Brown, the medical director for the AIDS Research Alliance, said the case highlights the fierce competition to win increasingly scarce NIH research funding.

"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," Brown said in an email to The Associated Press.

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ROB SYKES June 25 2014 at 3:35 AM

You will be seeing quite a bit of the same type of fraud coming out on the global warming research. The truth is researchers will bend or stretch facts in order to keep that grant money coming in. Researchers have to give their sponsors what they want to hear or the sponsors will in fact go elsewhere [it’s all about the money]…

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Jive Turkey ROB SYKES June 25 2014 at 4:48 AM

If that's the case, then we should print our own money. Wouldn't be the first time in history the bankers got stuck holding useless phony money. We could shaft the wall st casino while we're at it, sort of like a bonus. Imagine that, people using their own money debt free. Do a google video search for : The secret of Oz, or just copy paste the following into the address box of your browser and educate yourself about how the common man escaped this sort of slavery before:

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Eric Jive Turkey June 25 2014 at 11:37 AM

You're not following the notion to it's end. If an action such as you propose was to occur the economy would implode. Think if suddenly the local businesses you use stopped accepting money they could not confirm or trust. Now take that global. We'd be back to gold, silver, beads and shells. You better learn to ride a horse, raise chickens and drink polluted water.

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Christopher June 25 2014 at 2:54 AM

Now lets charge the people in the climate change fraud

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merrmade June 25 2014 at 1:50 AM

Who can we trust anymore? From Pres. Obama on down, lies and deceit are the operational words these days. Character comes first but now that we've removed any semblance of character training out of sight, especially for youngsters, and rewarding the shysters, we're reaping a bitter harvest that affects every one of us at every level..

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Eric June 25 2014 at 11:33 AM

No independent study or verification was produced before millions of dollars was simply handed over? Who the hell is supposed to be watching these things? After this guy is convicted we need to find the enity responsible for oversight and put their head on a pike outside the city gates.

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Jive Turkey June 25 2014 at 1:33 AM

HIV is and always will be the beta test for biological warfare. I'm sure the powers that be are well beyond that by now. Gene specific biological weaponry is out there somewhere. What are nanobots? Diseases are seldom cured but always weaponized.

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deviantstep June 25 2014 at 1:25 PM

Sadly, much of what is called "science" nowadays is pseudo-science or outright fraud. There is high pressure to obtain government grant money. The government has always been a breeding ground for fraud. Moreover, as "science" becomes more politicized and ideologues fill the ranks, we will see much fraud like this. These pseudo-scientists believe it is more important to have research "studies" to support their ideological goals than it is to find the truth.

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rpersuhn June 25 2014 at 12:07 AM

To find a cure is bad business. They just want to be able to treat it so they can sell you pills for the rest of your life.

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Eric rpersuhn June 25 2014 at 11:41 AM

I assume you have no idea of the amount of people involved at the social and political levels who have an eye out for fraud, corruption and abuse. How do you think the topic at hand came to light?

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beverly June 25 2014 at 11:24 AM

So sad. I recall reading about his supposed breakthrough in a medical magazine a while ago. Now to find out it was a sham is quite upsetting.
This proves that findings need to be replicated at each stage of the experiment in order to monitor the reasearch. The process of attaining a grant is really easy, just folllow the criteria, and usually the grant is given. All that money, and the results are fake.

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Michael Keohane June 25 2014 at 12:35 PM

Impossible! No scientist would ever falsify data in order to secure government funding. We all know that scientists are all highly ethical and would not act in that manner. After all, look at the conduct of other scientists - those sterling climate change advocates would never falsify date in order to secure funding. ;>)

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alspoolhall June 25 2014 at 12:46 PM

Liars, cheaters and fraudsters need to be punished each and every time! I'm sick of the all the people cheating and cheating and cheating and cheating . . . you get the idea.

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