Iowa State researcher indicted for faking “promising” AIDS vaccine studies

Years ago, Dr. Michael Cho and Dr. Dong-Pyou were working on HIV research at Case Western Reserve University. The two began a collaboration that lasted for about a dozen years.

One of the projects they worked on was trying to develop an anti-HIV vaccine.  They started receiving grants for this research.  Over the course of time, the grants totaled nearly $20 million.  One reason for the steady stream of grant funding was that their research showed that the vaccine they were working on was causing rabbits to form antibodies against HIV.  The implication was that, if rabbits could build an immune response to the vaccine, the same might happen in humans.  This might finally be an anti-HIV vaccine that worked.

Iowa State University recruited Dr. Cho to move himself and his research there.  Cho did and invited Dr. Han, whose research formed the cornerstone of this vaccine work, along.  Han accepted.  They moved themselves and their research to ISU.  Research continued there on the vaccine and other projects.

At about this time, other researchers, not affiliated with Cho’s group, tried  to reproduce the results that Cho had announced.  They immunized rabbits with Cho’s vaccine.  But the rabbits didn’t develop much in the way of an antibody response.  Certainly not the “exciting results” that the original researchers claimed.  The researchers reported their conflict ion results to ISU.  ISU launched an investigation.  The positive antibody results had all come from the work that Dr. Han had done.

Investigators took the rabbit blood samples, that Han claimed contained high levels of antibody and sent them off for testing to another laboratory.  This reference laboratory did find high levels of antibody in the samples.  But the antibody wasn’t made by rabbits, it was antibody made in humans.  Humans who had never been injected with the vaccine.  It had been added to the rabbit blood so that the research would show positive and promising results.

HIV virus attacking cell. 3D render, via Shutterstock.

HIV virus attacking cell. 3D render, via Shutterstock.

ISU confronted Dr. Han and he admitted that he had “spiked” the rabbit blood samples.  That is, he added the desired antibody to the rabbits’ blood to make the data look much better.  With promising results like this, he was hoping to continue to get more grant money and further advance his career.  He apologized for his deception.  ISU allowed him to resign and the papers published that used Han’s faked data were retracted.

Often that’s where the stories about research fraud end.  The researcher resigns.  But in some cases, those who provided the funding get involved and actually prosecute the researcher.  This doesn’t happen often.  Only a few times in the US that I’m aware of.  And once or twice in Europe.

In this case, much of the money came from grants provided through the federal government.  They are now investigating the matter.  About $4 million dollars in grant money has been disbursed to Cho and others, but hasn’t been spent.  They are deciding whether to let ISU and or Cho (the researcher who did not fake the data) use it, or take it back and give it to other researchers.  The government is also considering if it can require ISU to pay back any funds already spent on the spurious research.

Dr. Dong-Pyou Dr. Han apologized for his misconduct after he resigned from ISU.  The government, however, wanted more.  Last week, Han was indicted on four counts of fraud.  Right now he is free on bail.  He can face up to five years in jail for each count of fraud, and may be required to pay back part of the research funds.  ISU has already repaid about $500,000.

Dr. Cho and the other research team members have been exonerated from any wrongdoing in the research.

In a related story, Dr. Alfredo Fusco is being investigated in Italy for scientific fraud. He is accused of falsifying some of his data on cancer research.

I’d written before about the problem of fraudulent research. In my opinion, not enough has been done to address it. And until it is, we will continue to be plagued by the Dr. Dong-Pyous of the world.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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