AIDS researcher Dr. Dong-Pyou Han used to be an assistant professor of Biomedical Services. He just resigned his position at Iowa State University after admitting that his much-lauded and awarded cure for AIDS was faked all along. One cannot help but wonder how much other research may have also been faked over the years.
All a media story has to do is cite a research study and people generally assume it is the gospel truth. However, this story is not only big for the world of AIDS research, it has huge implications for the enterprise of science in general. The whole point of scientific research is to sustain a democracy of systematic inquiry. The peer review process and collegial teamwork is supposed to ensure findings are accurate and as objective as possible. Somehow, the possibility of research fraud taking place is overlooked by most people most of the time.
Dr. Dong-Pyou Han was one member of a team of scientists that had been led by Dr. Michael Cho, also a professor of Biomedical Services. The fraud had been originally fabricated to create false findings that were submitted for a research grant. The findings were so exciting it appeared the Cho team had found a cure for AIDS. Researchers at the university, including Dr. Dong-Pyou Han and the Cho team, subsequently received $19 million in federal grants to pursue the research.
Since it was a grant, the money does not ever have to be paid back – it was free money, so to speak. So far, the rest of the Cho team is swearing that they knew nothing about the fraud.
Exactly how did Dr. Dong-Pyou Han perpetrate scientific fraud? How did he succeed in making it appear as though he was a part of the Cho team’s successful bid to find a cure for AIDS?
Believe it or not, Dr. Dong-Pyou Han decided to take human blood from HIV positive people who were producing antibodies for AIDS, and mix it into rabbit blood. Suddenly, the experiment to find a cure for AIDS now appeared to be a success. Using the tainted rabbit’s blood, Dr. Dong-Pyou Han was able to make it look as though the vaccine he had developed had caused the rabbits’ bodies to build up defenses against the virus.
The faux experiment was described in the Federal Registry, which reported this news was the result of an official University investigation. Dr. Dong-Pyou Han has delivered a full confession. It had taken several years for the Cho team to become aware of the fraud, but eventually, the democracy of systematic investigation caught up with the evil Dr. Dong-Pyou Han. When team members could not replicate the original research, those rabbit blood samples were re-tested.
Until then, the scientific community had held up the Cho team’s research as presenting a significant advance in the fight to quell the global AIDS epidemic.
The federal government announced their finding of misconduct in research supported by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), grants P01 AI074286, R33 AI076083, and U19 AI091031. Han has agreed to “… exclude himself from any federal contracts for the next three years.” That’s it? What about the $19 million?
One cannot help but wonder: if this AIDS research was fake all along, then what are the odds this has happened before? What other research has been faked? We know of several cases in recent years of research being falsified. However, it is the ones we do not know about that are the most troubling. What are the odds that no one has ever faked any other research? It would be impossible to believe that we found out every time it has happened, and that all other research findings are pristine, objective and impartial. Maybe peer review is not enough. Maybe long-term confirmation of research findings should become institutionalized in the 21st century practice of science. In this case, it would have prevented throwing away $19 million of taxpayer money.
By Alex Durig