At the time I wrote my last entry, about Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han’s admitted research misconduct, I had an email seeking additional information out to ISU spokesman John McCarroll.
I wasn’t sure how soon McCarroll would get back to me, given the skeleton staff ISU maintains during semester break, so I went ahead with the post, which raised questions about what kind of a deal Han may have reached to settle charges that he tampered with research for an AIDS vaccine.
McCarroll’s response, just before New Year’s Day, sheds some light on those questions – but not much.
Han, in a voluntary agreement with the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) at the Department of Health and Human Services, was banned for three years from involvement in any government grants and from advising any Public Health Service committees or boards.
Commenters and bloggers have suggested Han should get jail time and repay some of the millions of federal grants awarded after he admitted faking results by spiking rabbit blood with human HIV antibodies. Although I believe such sanctions are rare, I didn’t see any reason Han couldn’t be prosecuted and speculated he may have reached a deal to avoid criminal charges and a more stiff sanction.
After checking with ISU’s research administration, McCarroll says the university didn’t promise Han immunity and gave him nothing in return for his admission. He also says ISU has no knowledge that Han’s case has been referred to law enforcement for investigation and charges.
The university shared its investigation results only with ORI and the Iowa Board of Regents, McCarroll says in an email.
ISU also sent me a copy of the agreement Han signed (see below). Most of the contents already came out in the ORI announcement, including the allegations Han admitted to and the sanctions. But it also states that Han “accepts and agrees not to contest or appeal the findings of research misconduct.”
Han also certifies that he currently receives no federal money and that he entered the agreement voluntarily. David Oliver, ISU’s vice president for research and economic development, signed on Nov. 13; Han signed on Nov. 20; and Wanda Jones, principal deputy assistant secretary for health, signed on Nov. 25.
Interestingly, a space for Han’s lawyer to sign is blank.
The letter from ORI was sent to Han last month at an address in Cleveland – home of Case Western Reserve University, from which Han moved in 2009 when ISU lured away his group leader, Michael Cho. It also gives an email address for Han. I’ve written him, but received no response.
ISU and ORI say Cho isn’t culpable in the scandal. In his response to my questions, McCarroll included comments Cho made to the Des Moines Register and Ames Tribune. I won’t go into them here, except to note that Cho believes the scandal won’t damage his group’s work in the long run.
“The vaccine candidate in question is only one of many … the team has been working on,” he writes. “More importantly, much of the research funding has been spent towards developing novel, more effective vaccine delivery platform technologies, which can be applied to any vaccine, not just for … AIDS.”
There’s no doubt Cho’s group is doing interesting work. It’s impossible to say whether their vaccine, which apparently relies on triggering an immune response to proteins present in HIV, will work. But, as Cho noted, the vaccine delivery ideas could be more exciting. For example, the group has modified a common bacterium found in the human gut to express a protein that triggers an immune response to the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus. Mice immunized with oral or nasal doses of the bacteria produced antibodies effective against SARS viruses.
The paper presents results similar to those from the now-discredited AIDS research and Han is one of the coauthors on the SARS paper in the link. But since it came out in 2006 and he’s not the first author, its results probably are genuine.
But that’s a problem: Anything connected with Han’s name now has a shadow over it and, in the larger sense, so does any science. Research that advances human knowledge and improves and enlightens our lives can’t afford another blow to its credibility when it’s already under attack from skeptics, deniers, and Tea Party politicians.