In a coda to a major case of alleged research misconduct at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in the late 2000s, newly revealed documents suggest that Duke officials dismissed a medical student’s concerns about cancer researcher Anil Potti’s work.
Potti came under scrutiny for problems with data in several papers that reported on using tumor gene signatures to assign cancer patients to different chemotherapies in clinical trials. Although outside biostatisticians had raised questions about Potti’s work, Duke canceled the trials and put Potti on administrative leave only after The Cancer Letter, a Washington, D.C.–based newsletter, pointed to false information in his resume. Potti left Duke in 2010. Many of Potti’s papers have since been retracted, and a 2012 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report found problems with Duke’s handling of the case as well as the field of “omics” cancer research.
Duke officials told the IOM panel that there was never a whistleblower in the Potti case, according to The Cancer Letter. But that claim is contradicted by documents that the newsletter obtained as part of a lawsuit filed against Duke by patients in the clinical trials. According to the newsletter’s 9 January issue, as the trials were starting in 2008, a medical student in Potti’s lab named Bradford Perez raised concerns about the statistical analyses in Potti’s papers in e-mails and a memo to Duke officials. Perez noted that he had removed himself as co-author of several of Potti’s papers and asked to change labs at the risk of harming his career. “In raising these concerns, I have nothing to gain and much to lose,” he wrote in the memo.
Potti’s mentor, cancer geneticist Joseph Nevins, pleaded with Perez not to send a letter about his concerns to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which was supporting him, because it would trigger an investigation at Duke, according to a deposition cited in court documents. Perez is now a resident at Duke.
Duke officials told The Cancer Letter that the university “supported Dr. Perez as he raised his concerns during 2008 and thereafter” and that Duke “acknowledged years ago there are many aspects of this situation that would have been handled differently had there been more complete information at the time decisions were made.”