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Federal prosecutors charge scientist in major HIV vaccine fraud case

Tuesday, June 24, 2014
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Finding an HIV vaccine remains a top international scientific priority. A 2009 study in Thailand is the only one ever to show a modest success, protecting about a third of recipients against infection. That’s not good enough for general use, so researchers continue exploring numerous approaches.

According to the indictment, Han’s misconduct caused colleagues to make false statements in a federal grant application and progress reports to NIH.

Dong-Pyou Han

Dong-Pyou Han

The NIH paid out $5 million under that grant as of earlier this month. Iowa State has agreed to pay back NIH nearly $500,000 for the cost of Han’s salary.

Han’s misconduct dates to when he worked at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland under Michael Cho, who was leading a team testing an experimental HIV vaccine on rabbits.

Starting in 2008, Cho’s team received initial NIH funding for the work. Cho reported soon that his vaccine was causing rabbits to develop antibodies to HIV, which left NIH officials “flabbergasted,” according to a criminal complaint against Han.

Cho’s team sent blood samples in 2009 to Duke University researchers, who verified the apparent positive impact on the vaccinated rabbits. The confirmation was seen as “a major breakthrough in HIV/AIDS vaccine research,” according to the complaint.

Iowa State recruited Cho in 2009, and with his team – including Han – he soon received a five-year NIH grant to continue the research. The team kept reporting progress. But in January 2013, a team at Harvard University found the promising results had been achieved with rabbit blood spiked with human antibodies.

An investigation by Iowa State pinpointed Han, after he was caught sending more spiked samples to Duke University. In a Sept. 30, 2013 confession letter, Han said he started the fraud in 2009 “because he wanted (results) to look better” and that he acted alone.

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“I was foolish, coward, and not frank,” he wrote.

Cho has said he was devastated and angered that he wasted years on the research, but he has vowed to continue his work. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Stephen Brown, 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 a statement.

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