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September 1, 2014

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Researcher charged in major HIV vaccine fraud case

IOWA CITY, Iowa — 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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