Former Iowa State researcher faked HIV vaccine findings: ORI

ori logoA former researcher at Iowa State University (ISU) faked results of experiments to make tests of a vaccine against HIV in animals look more powerful, according to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI).

Specifically, ORI and ISU found that Dong-Pyou Han

falsified results in research to develop a vaccine against human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) by intentionally spiking samples of rabbit sera with antibodies to provide the desired results. The falsification made it appear that rabbits immunized with the gp41-54 moiety of the HIV gp41 glycoprotein induced antibodies capable of neutralizing a broad range of HIV-1 strains, when the original sera were weakly or non-reactive in neutralization assays. Falsified neutralization assay results were widely reported in laboratory meetings, seven (7) national and international symposia between 2010 and 2012, and in grant applications and progress reports P01 AI074286-03, −04, −05, and −06; R33 AI076083-04; U19 AI091031-01 and −03; and R01 AI090921-01. Specifically:

a. Respondent falsified research materials when he provided collaborators with sera for neutralization assays from (i) rabbits immunized with peptides from HIV gp41-54Q (and related antigens HR1-54Q, gp41-54Q-OG, gp41-54Q-GHC, gp41-54Q-Cys and Cys-gp41-54Q) to assay HIV neutralizing activity, when Respondent had spiked the samples with human IgG known to contain broadly neutralizing antibodies to HIV-1; and (ii) rabbits immunized with HIV gp41-54Q to assay HIV neutralizing activity, when Respondent had spiked the samples with sera from rabbits immunized with HIV-1 gp120 that neutralized HIV.

b. Respondent falsified data files for neutralization assays, and provided false data to his laboratory colleagues, to make it appear that rabbits immunized with gp41-54Q and recombinant Lactobacillus expressing gp41-64 (LAB gp41-64) produced broadly reactive neutralizing antibodies, by changing the numbers to show that samples with little or no neutralizing activity had high activity.

Han can’t receive NIH grants for three years, nor serve on any NIH peer review committees. His faculty page has been scrubbed from ISU.

The PI on the three grants involved was Michael Cho, with whom he also worked at Case Western. We’ve asked Cho whether any of Han’s papers will be retracted, and will update with anything we learn.

Update, 10:45 a.m. Eastern, 10/23/13: ISU tells us that Han resigned his position effective October 4 of this year. They are not sure where he is currently working, and no papers will be retracted:

He did not publish the research, but one oral presentation and some abstracts will be removed from the web.

18 thoughts on “Former Iowa State researcher faked HIV vaccine findings: ORI”

      1. Right, rfg

        Retraction of a poster presentation abstract is not unprecedented, see e.g.

        Retraction | October 2012
        Notice of Retraction: Upregulated Oncogenic Pathways in Patients Exposed to Tobacco Smoke May Provide a Novel Approach to Lung Cancer Chemoprevention
        (Chest. 2008;134[4]:158001S)
        Chest. 2012;142(4):1079. doi:10.1378/chest.12-1284

        “We would like to withdraw our abstract ‘Upregulated Oncogenic Pathways in Patients Exposed to Tobacco Smoke May Provide a Novel Approach to Lung Cancer Chemoprevention’, which appeared in CHEST2 and was presented as a poster on October 29, 2008… ”

        so we will see how long it takes until a retraction notice appears for the published abstract you found. The abstract indeed claims activity for the gp-41-54 immunization, as described in the ORI and ISU findings, so should have a retraction notification.

        I’m guessing that to an institution wanting to save face, a poster presentation abstract in the journal “Retrovirology” does not constistute a publication.

        1. There is also a published patent or patent application that I would consider a publication on this topic.

          Most institutions pull out all the stops to try and bury research misconduct (ORI usually with little recourse other than to go along due to lack of resources) so props to ISU for
          correcting to this extent. However, it does look like face saving is in play here with the “no” publication declaration.

          Retrovirology should publish a clear retraction and ISU should withdraw the patent.

  1. Given the field of research he is in and the seriousness of his academic dishonesty, the punishment doesn’t seem very severe. Is he still employed at his current institution? If we really want to prevent researchers from engaging in this type of misconduct, the consequences definitely need to more severe than these.

    1. These things should happen to this researcher: 1) He should be made to pay back all funds, in full, all research grants, and all travel, hotel and other expenses related with the 7 meetings where he presented and glorified his fraud. 2) He should have to pay back a percentage of his salary, at least 50%, over the years in which fraudulent research took place; 3) he should be banned indefinately in any US research institute (the logic is that he has nothing honest to contribute again); 4) strip him of his PhD, and make him start afresh from undergrad if he really has a love for science. By giving the soft “punishment” it has, ORI is doing exactly what the US Government is doing with corrupt bankers, allowing them to go scott free, with a small slap on the wrist, and the payment of a fine (

        1. Note, I am not saying (or implying) that ORI has no value, or importance, only that it has extremely limited value, and that that value is restricted to one country in the world. If it has such limited value, or legal or punitive reach, then why is tax-payer money being used to fund it, except to exert a ban on access to NIH-related funding? In such a case, surely ORI should be nothing more than an investigative body with a blog reporting its results and funded independently through donations, but not by using tax-payer’s money. The bottom line is that this individual has received much more than just NIH funding for his fraudulent research. He has received salaries, research grants, costs to cover travel and accomodation expenses, etc over several years. So he lost his web-page and some links on Google, so what?! He could be on a plane to the Fiji Islands right now, laughing at the lack of justice that was served… simply because ORI had no power to put him in jail or retrieve squandered funds.

          1. Think carefully about what you are asking for. What would it be like if the ORI had the power to levy sanctions as you have proposed? A minor bureaucrat, without judicial review, could bar researchers and institutions from research money. Are you sure that that would _always_ be done in a fair and equitable manner, with no mistakes or possibility of corruption?

            Only the Justice Department can initiate legal action. They won’t do so in these cases for good reasons. 1) The monetary amounts are trivial compared to irregularities in the Defense Budget. 2) The chance of recovery of any funds is negligible. 3) The chance of even winning a case is very very small.

            You might wonder why Congress doesn’t reform the system of grants and contracts. Research funding isn’t even peanuts compared to the money given to defense contractors and government service providers. If you find a way to hold Lockheed Martin accountable for their many billions of government funding, we would be interested to know the details. Suffice it to say that no Congressperson who wished to be reelected will support any such scheme.

    2. So you argue that falsification in one field to the same extent does not equal falsification in another field and all is based on societal impact of that field? Not an accusatory question, I just want to hear your opinion.

      1. I for one would argue that position. Research misconduct in fields that are strictly medically related is inherently more damaging that for misconduct in typical basic research. First, people may be harmed or killed directly as a result of fraudulent medical work. Second, the work my influence third parties to carry out mistaken treatments or research that may lead to harm. Thirdly, fake medical research may lead to unnecessary delays in other research that would have found a cure or treatment if it had not been outcompeted.

  2. Falsifying data is simply unforgivable.
    i presume that a three-year ban on funding will turn into a lifetime, if this ban is well publicized- as for instance on a shame list made available to all funding and hiring institutions, and so it should.
    Integrity is not an incidental feature of scientific research, nor of any other research. .

    1. Dear Dan, your assessment of the US Justice Department is perfect: nothing but an over-budgeted pool of bureaucrats that serve their own personal agendas or at least only politically-motivated ones, and not really those related to transparency and real justice. ONe need only to follow the Fast and Furious scandal and the attitude by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to get some insight about how the US Justice Department is anything about justice, or transparency.,0,3828090.storygallery#axzz2oK9hEft5

      My opinion above, however, is only an expression of my disappointment in ORI (or its lack of power to do anything). ORI is always touted as a beacon of ethics and in the pursuit of justice in science research and publishing, but what is that value if it cannot enforce any laws and ensure real justice? Kind of like COPE, touted as this beacon of ethics, but then never able to assist real scientists with valid complaints, unless they pay money for “membership”.

      In this case, the US justice system is its own banana peel. You are spot on about the abuses in the defense department and in other sectors of the US Government and the private industry related to weapons and defense, but we can leave that discussion for another blog. Many scientists fail however, to see the link between science and “larger” issues such as defense spending, but one day they might see (and understand) the “bigger picture”, to use an expression related to Thom Hartmann (

      Your perspective is sad for only one reason: it is true. Let a spade be called a spade, let us not waste energy on being euphemistic, and let us call out the fraud for what it is on this and other blogs. If tax-payer-funded bodies cannot even bring fraudsters to justice (because they don’t have the “legal” power to do so), then there is only one way to bring about justice: public exposure and embarrassment and then advertising this information to the scientific community, preferably to all peers in that field around the world. We can thank lawyers for euphemistically twisting the truth in pursuit of manipulated justice, but scientists can see fraud straight in the eye. We call for justice, raw and unmanipulated. Dr. Han should never be given an opportunity to conduct research in any institute from Beijing to Buenos Aires, not at least without a stigma attached to his professional profile. REAL justice costs nothing to achieve, only the will to find truth and to achieve it.

  3. “ORI is always touted as a beacon of ethics and in the pursuit of justice in science research and publishing, but what is that value if it cannot enforce any laws and ensure real justice?”

    The value of ORI is simply that it can carry out an independent investigation. If an organization receives NIH money it is then obligated to assist in an ORI investigation.

    If it were not for ORI, then most investigations would have to be initiated by the organization, which may very well prefer that no investigation take place. And an ORI investigation is independent. The investigators are not paid by nor responsible to the organization being investigated. This makes the ORI indeed a shining beacon of integrity the likes of which the world has seldom seen.

    I think you are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. It would indeed be nice to see those guilty of misconduct whipped naked through the streets of Aberdeen. But that is unlikely, and for the purposes of science it is only necessary that the fabrications be uncovered and publicized.

    1. Under federal policy, all investigations are ALREADY conducted by the grantee institutions and when completed sent to ORI for review. ORI can do more investigating if it chooses. Keep in mind ORI is only involved in research that is funded by HHS.

  4. Though I sympathise with @publichealthwatch’s concern regarding the short-term possibility that biomedical research fraud may lead to injury/death of innocents, this is true for any research field and one can argue coherently that the toll in other fields would be much, much higher. For instance, fraud in energy research could put a country back decades, with a hit on the economy and the mortality rate.
    So I think @elanine newman has got it right here.
    As for ORI, certainly complain that it needs more teeth and while you are at it, complain about issues at the Justice Department, the Congress, etc. However, these institutions operate within the context of a set of aspirations, which they do not meet; be glad that you have such institutions and so can and do complain!

  5. I am quite sure that this investigator would not have been prosecuted had Senator Grassley not intervened.
    Under current law, ORI does not have prosecutorial authority. It must refer cases it deems particularly
    egregious to the Justice Dept for prosecution. It chose not to do so in this case and other serious violators in the past.

    I had been told that cases were not referred by ORI because the AG does not prosecute cases which do not involve larger sums of Federal money.. Be that as it may, we can hope that a new ORI Director will initiate a more assertive policy. .It will serve two purposes: Individuals will be more appropriately penalized; and
    others in the research community contemplating misconduct may become more reluctant to do so.


  6. I understand that the sentencing of Han that was scheduled for today ( was postponed by the court for another month (to June 29, 2015).

    It is interesting that the two counts which Hn accepted in his formal plea agreement ( were for FALSE STATEMENTS TO THE GOVERNMENT (falsified data) that were MADE BY HIS BOSS in an NIH grant application and an NIH grant progress report — not made directly by Han – but that Han CAUSED HIS BOSS TO MAKE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.