In rare move, feds charge scientist for fraudulent HIV research

'Extraordinary' fraud garnered millions of dollars in NIH funding

Federal prosecutors have filed fraud charges against a former Iowa State University laboratory manager who garnered millions of dollars in grants from NIH after purposely tampering with data to make an experimental HIV vaccine appear to have merit, the Associated Press reports.

Background on the case

In 2008, Dong-Pyou Han was working with a team at Case Western Reserve University under the supervision of Michael Cho to test an experimental HIV medicine on rabbits using NIH funding. According to the complaint against Han, NIH officials were "flabbergasted" when the vaccine appeared to cause rabbits to develop antibodies to HIV.

In 2009, Duke University researchers examined blood samples sent by Cho's team and confirmed the drug's apparent positive effect. According to the complaint, after the verification, the drug was seen as "a major breakthrough in HIV/AIDS vaccine research."

Later that year, Cho's team—including Han—was recruited by Iowa State and received a five-year grant from NIH. Although the team continued to report progress, Harvard University researchers in 2013 discovered that the rabbit blood had been compromised with human antibodies.

Iowa State conducted an investigation and found Han had falsified the team's data. On Sept. 30, 2013, Han confessed in a letter, acknowledging that he began the fraud in 2009 "because he wanted the (results) to look better." He noted that he acted alone and referred to himself as "foolish, coward, and not frank."

Cho, who was not accused of any wrongdoing, says he is devastated to have wasted years on false research but will continue to search for a cure.

Last week, Han was indicted on four counts of making false statements that led to millions of dollars in grants from NIH and the promise of a breakthrough in HIV/AIDS research. Each count carries up to five years in prison. Han was supposed to be arraigned earlier this week, but did not show up because of an apparent administrative mix-up. He will likely appear next week.

Experts: This case is important

According to the AP, charges are rarely filed in such cases, but Han's fraud was "extraordinary."

Ivan Oransky—founder of Retraction Watch, which monitors research misconduct—says, the case is important because "it is extremely rare for scientists found to have committed fraud to be held accountable by the actual criminal justice system." He notes that just a handful of cases have been prosecuted over the past three decades.

Moreover, AIDS Research Alliance Medical Director Stephen Brown says the case indicates the extreme competition to collect NIH funding.

Brown notes that the 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" (Foley, AP/ABC News, 6/24; Rodgers, The Des Moines Register, 6/20).

Make sense of the changing fraud and abuse landscape

The Obama Administration has taken several steps to intensify its enforcement activities, including recent amendments to the False Claims Act and unprecedented coordination between the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services.

In this webconference, we help you make sense of the changing fraud and abuse landscape.

Watch the video

Next in the Daily Briefing

An old drug may fight new superbugs

Read now