Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

AIDS vaccine fraudster sentenced to nearly 5 years in prison and to pay back $7 million

with 26 comments

court case

A researcher who confessed to spiking rabbit blood samples to make the results of an HIV vaccine experiment look better has been sentenced to 57 months of prison time, according to The Des Moines Register.

Dong-Pyou Han has also been ordered to repay more than $7 million to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and will have three years of supervised release following his prison term.

In December, 2013, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity announced that Han, formerly at Iowa State University (ISU), had faked his results to make an HIV vaccine look more powerful. The faulty data made their way into seven national and international symposia between 2010 and 2012 (resulting in a retracted poster in 2014), along with three grant applications and multiple progress reports. Han agreed to a three-year research ban, and resigned from ISU in October the following year.

The NIH never sent the final $1.38 million grant payment of more than $10 million awarded to Han’s boss, Michael Cho, and ISU returned nearly $500,000 it had received for Han’s salary and other costs.

However, the case also resulted in criminal charges against Han, which, as Ivan and Adam wrote about the case in the New York Timesis almost unheard of in cases of scientific misconduct. What seems to have been different here, however, was that U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was unsatisfied with the ORI’s response to the case and made some noise. In June, 2014, Han was arrested on felony charges.

In January, Han signed a plea agreement that included agreeing to plead guilty to criminal charges of making false statements.

Update 7/1/15 8:07 p.m. eastern: Our own Adam and Ivan weigh in on the sentence in The Des Moines Register, and argue that bringing criminal into fraud cases isn’t such a bad thing:

Scientists who steal grant money — and make no mistake: fabricating data is as much a form of theft as selling someone a piece of forged artwork — probably aren’t hardcore criminals. But that doesn’t mean they should be given a pass by the criminal justice system. If Han’s stiff sentence serves to deter future would-be fraudsters, that would be an example worth setting.

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  • scotus July 1, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Wow. There is a huge difference between the wimpy ORI sanctions and this enormous fine and the 57 month federal prison sentence. Frankly there are quite a few other proven or pending research misconduct cases discussed here that involve similar levels of harm and defrauding of federal research funds. I wonder if this means that these kinds of cases will now get a lot more attention from Federal Prosecutors?

    • Theresa Defino July 2, 2015 at 12:14 am

      Don’t bet on it. I think the reason for the criminal charges and the jail time was this happened in Iowa and caught Grassley’s attention. Thank journalism and thank Grassley.

      You can also thank open records’ laws–Iowa’s are great, and the Register journalist was privy to a lot of documents about this case, including the internal inquiry and investigation by ORI (I got them, too, and reported on them).

      ORI still doesn’t have a director, folks…nearly 18 months and counting. And the job was vacant for two years before that.

      • scotus July 3, 2015 at 11:50 am

        I wonder if one consequence of this case will be that other respondents to misconduct charges will be far less willing to cooperate. In this case, it appears as though Han admitted to the misconduct expecting to lose his job and suffer the indignity of meaningless ORI sanctions but was then exposed to prosecution on Federal Charges.

  • Alan R. Price July 1, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    “Grassley [Senator Charles Grassley (Republican, Iowa)] appears to agree — telling the Senate in July, ‘I worry that other cases may go unnoticed or unaddressed if there isn’t a public outcry.’ He argues that lawmakers would not need to involve themselves in such matters if some government agencies that oversee research grants could levy harsher penalties and had more capacity to investigate alleged fraud.” — PER NATURE | NEWS — US vaccine researcher sentenced to prison for fraud – The case of Dong-Pyou Han illustrates the uneven nature of penalties for scientific misconduct. — Sara Reardon — 01 July 2015

  • Jim Thornton July 1, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    Almost, but not quite, unheard of. As noted in the NYT op-ed linked to here, Eric Poehlman went down for a year, for fraudulent studies.

    • John Krueger July 3, 2015 at 10:54 am

      People tend to overlook the significant fact that Poehlman’s penalty reflects the fact that he was found to have committed perjury in front of a (federal?) judge in the very lawsuit that he had brought against the institution to stop their reporting to ORI.

  • fernando pessoa July 1, 2015 at 5:47 pm
    • scotus July 1, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      Thats the point I was trying to make. Some of these other cases involve a lot more than $10M of NIH grants. And don’t forget that as argued by his defender, unlike the heads of the labs some of these papers come from Han really didn’t gain much personally from the fraud.

      I wonder if this is Federal Blue Collar Prison, or Federal PMITA Prison?

  • Gary July 2, 2015 at 5:14 am

    I believe, and I think most people here would agree, that their need to be more uniformity in the punishments meted out to fraudsters (50+ month does seem a bit steep for one individual where others receive the punishment of “having their work supervised for 3 years”).
    Is there currently a body (in the USA or elsewhere) that could take on the role of prosecuting these scientists? If not which agencies would take it on?

  • DTX July 2, 2015 at 10:07 am

    While I agree with uniformity, I think it goes beyond just financial considerations. That is, fraud involving vaccines, drugs, and other medical treatments can put people’s health at risk. For this reason, I can see higher penalities for these types of fraud.

    To constrast, fabricating data on business managment effectiveness is wrong and should be punished, but to me it’s a different level of seriousness.

    I hope this punishment will make others think twice about fabricating vaccine or other health related data.

  • Valerie July 2, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    Personally, I think this guy IS a hardcore criminal — I prefer to measure “hardcore” by the amount of damage done or potentially done, not by the method used to commit the crime. Think about Andrew Wakefield — how many people have died or been seriously ill/injured because of him? How much money was wasted disproving a bogus link between vaccines and autism? In Han’s case, there are three major problems: the most obvious two are all that money he stole from other researchers and the damage that would have been done had that vaccine gone into clinical trials. The less obvious one is that this guy has now become fuel for the anti-vaccine engine. Anti-vaxxers can and presumably will use this as a poster child for their cause.

    Smashing windows as a means of stealing TVs or robbing banks aren’t the only ways to commit hardcore crimes.

  • Dave July 2, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    The sentence seems entirely appropriate, giving the seriousness of the HIV epidemic. How much money and time got diverted from more promising vaccines due to this guy’s fraud?

  • Alan R. Price July 2, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    Gary, only the states attorney generals and the Federal attorney generals in the Department of Justice can prosecute — the federal agencies, like NSF and NIH with ORI, cannot do so themselves. It is very costly and time consuming for AGs to pursue such cases, which often have little potential for recovery of funds to the Government (thus, they have a high threshold, and so and they go usually after institutions with money – poor scientists seldom ever have $7 million).

    Nonetheless, in ORI cases involving NIH funding, AGs in DoJ have prosecuted and sent several PIs to prison, and ORI debarred them for life. :

    In 2005, Dr. Eric Poehlman, Professor at the Univ. of Vermont, formerly at the Univ. of Maryland at Baltimore, falsified massive human subject physiology testing. DoJ imposed a 1 year prison term plus 2 years probation for lying in an NIH grant application, with a $180,000 civil fine, and ORI debarred him for life:

    In 2006, Mr. Paul Kornak, Clinical Research Coordinator at the Stratton New York Veterans Administration Medical Center, falsely claimed to be an M.D. and falsified clinical trial data, including that to enroll an ineligible veteran patient, who died from the treatment? DoJ found negligent homocide with a 6 year prison term, directed him to pay restitution to two pharmaceutical companies and the VA in the amount of approximately $639,000, and ORI debarred him for life.

    Another doctor in ORI cases debarred from Federal funding for lifetime was Jon Sudb, D.D.S., former doctoral student and faculty member at the University of Oslo who fabricated research in NIH grant applications and 12 other publications to demonstrate the feasibility of preventing cancer in a high risk population with non-toxic oral agents.

    • Gary July 7, 2015 at 8:54 am

      I see – thank you for your clear explanation.

  • fernando pessoa July 4, 2015 at 3:11 am

    This 2012 paper received NIH funding.

  • fernando pessoa July 4, 2015 at 3:12 am

    This 2009 paper received NIH funding.

  • fernando pessoa July 4, 2015 at 7:52 am

    This 2013 paper received NIH funding.

  • fernando pessoa July 4, 2015 at 8:32 am

    This 2006 paper received NIH funding.

  • fernando pessoa July 4, 2015 at 8:35 am
  • Michael July 5, 2015 at 12:54 am

    I just wish there were the likes of Sen. Grassley for the other states where PIs have featured prominently on Retraction Watch and PubPeer. And, they have managed to silence the critics with threats of lawsuits and carry on as usual. I wish ORI had more teeth to deal with these charlatans who waste public research dollars and worse, put public in danger when they float clinical trials off their bogus research. There is an ancient saying: “Education makes a man a more refined man; a crook, a more refined crook”. It was true then, it is true now.

  • Alan R. Price July 5, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Michael, your “wish ORI had more teeth to deal with these charlatans who waste public research dollars” has been granted since ORI was created in 1992, with ORI using its power of debarment to prevent the use of all federal agencies research dollars by scientists whom ORI has found to have committed serious research misconduct [143 debarments on 267 ORI findings], including no funding for three for the rest of their lives [see case summaries in the ORI Annual Reports since 1993 at ]:

    – lifetime (Poehlman 2005 [and prison 1 year], Kornak 2006 [and prison 7 years], and Sudbo 2007).
    – 10 years (Dreyer 2001, Gelband 2004, Thomas 2009)
    – 8 years (Poisson 1993)
    – 7 years (Brodie 2010, Smart 2012, Thiruchelvam 2012)
    – 5 years (Lee 1993, Rosner 1993, Tewari 1994, London 1997, Angelides 1999, Simmons 2000,
    Garey 2001, Arnold 2002, Handa 2002, Ruggerio 2002, Smith 2002, Yao 2002, Eagan 2003, Ganz 2003, Muenchen 2003, Hiserodt 2004, Jacoby 2005, Aronica 2006, Leadon 2006, Robinson 2007, Roovers 2007, Uzelmeier [Marcus] 2007, Van Parijs 2009, Sezen 2010, Zach 2012, Briones 2015, Reddy 2015)
    – 4 years (Washabaugh 1996, Hajra 1997, Tracy 2002, Xu 2004, Sperber 2008)

    The “standard” or typical debarment of an individual from federal funding that is imposed by ORI and other federal agencies for research misconduct is 3 years (87 cases by ORI since 1992). ORI has imposed or negotiated 1 year (3 cases) or 2 year (13 cases) debarment in lesser ones.

  • Dane July 7, 2015 at 10:49 am

    I agree Han’s guilty for his wrong decision. But, where’s a responsibility of Cho as a supervisor and PI. Technically Han was not the one who stole and misuse all the federal money, I think, because he wasn’t the PI who submitted all the grants to NIH. Cho, even if Han started all that bogus, was supposed to oversee all of the actions that might have been made in any ways by his lab people including Han to prevent this happening and take a responsibility in part for this false. Although it’s not necessary to put the same crimanal charge on Cho like Han, NIH/ORI should ban or debar Cho from federal funding too I believe, because he totally failed to lead/manage a research team as a supervisor.

    • Alan R. Price July 9, 2015 at 6:07 pm

      NIH cannot willy-nilly debar head scientists from all federal funding as you suggest: “Although it’s not necessary to put the same criminal charge on C.. like H.., NIH/ORI should ban or debar C.. from federal funding too I believe, because he totally failed to lead/manage a research team as a supervisor.”

      There has to be a serious violation of a law or federal regulation under which NIH or ORI could charge and try to impose debarment as sanction (like theft of grant funds, research misconduct, or other felony). There is no law or regulation to sanction a failure of oversight or supervision of staff such that they committed research misconduct without the knowledge or direction of the head scientist. Numerous highly respected and distinguished scientists, including the Director of NIH, have been the victim of falsification or fabrication by staff of manuscript figures and data, which they did not detect. They cannot be debarred by ORI, and they should not be debarred by NIH.

  • Kent Clizbe December 23, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    The False Claims Act allows any person (a whistleblower with inside knowledge of the fraud) to bring action against fraudulent Federal contractors. The Justice Department can join in the suit, but does not have to.

    If the civil case for false claims is won, then the whistleblower may be awarded a substantial portion of the funds clawed back from the fraudsters.

    This is wide open for application in academic fraud cases. It is common for academic grant-magnets to have armies of grad students doing their work. These grad students would likely have access to proof of the fraud.

    A noble undertaking would be to form a Grad-Student-Whistleblower organization to make justice that much easier to obtain.

  • A. Raz July 6, 2016 at 7:48 am

    Committing a scientific fraud it is not only an ethical breach but also a crime of transferring fraudulent corrupt copyrights to a publisher. No excuses.

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