HIV researcher found guilty of research misconduct sentenced to prison

AIDS Vaccine Trial

Credit: 2011, Charlotte Raymond Photography for International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI)

Repercussions from research misconduct can take various forms: journal retractions, scientific ostracism, barred access to funding, and job loss. But rarely does it involve criminal charges, not to mention jail time. An exception to this trend is Dong Pyou Han, a former Iowa State University (ISU) biomedical researcher who last week was sentenced to prison for 57 months—almost 5 years—for falsifying results in HIV vaccine studies he participated in while working under lab head Michael Cho, The Guardian reports. Han has also been ordered to repay $7.2 million of federal grant funds to the National Institutes of Health. Cho has not been disciplined and is still an active researcher at ISU.

According to The Guardian, Han’s misconduct appears to begin in 2008, when he was working in Cho’s lab at Case Western Reserve University. (Cho and his lab, including Han, moved to ISU in 2009.) The team was working with rabbits to develop an HIV vaccine. “Han said he initially accidentally mixed human blood with rabbit blood, making the potential vaccine appear to increase an immune defense against HIV,” the story reports. But instead of acknowledging his error once he identified it, “Han continued to spike the results to avoid disappointing Cho.”

It’s questionable how much more is to be gained by jail time.

—David Wright

By the end of 2013, Han had already resigned from ISU and received a 3-year ban on pursuing federal grants from the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), The Washington Post reports. With these punishments in mind, Han’s “attorney pleaded with the court for probation, not jail time. ‘Here, there is little reason to believe that Dr. Han has not already been deterred from any future criminal conduct. … He regrets the hurt he has caused to his friends and colleagues, the damage he has caused to government funded scientific research, and the pain he has caused any members of the public who had high hopes based on his falsehood.’” But the sentencing judge was not swayed.

Han’s fate can be traced to the attention he received from U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), who has a long history of investigating research misconduct. When Grassley learned of Han’s fraud, he wrote to the ORI, arguing that the 3-year ban on federal research funding “seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies.” Then, in June 2014, “after extensive media coverage of the case and of Grassley's reaction to it, the federal prosecutor in Des Moines pressed charges against Han,” Nature reports.

The case raises some important questions about how scientific misconduct is, and should be, addressed. As reported by Nature, “David Wright, a former ORI director, says that the benefit of criminal prosecution is unclear. Formally barring a researcher from receiving federal funds is usually a professional death sentence, even if the ban is short, he adds. ‘It’s questionable how much more is to be gained by jail time.’”

But the case may be setting a precedent. Researchers must be aware that committing fraud can not only end a career, but it may also change one’s life in an even more fundamental way.

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