National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding is the lifeblood of U.S. biomedical research centers, particularly for teams working on speculative, early-phase projects like AIDS vaccines. Dr. Dong-Pyou Han was part of one such team, but NIH has banned him from receiving grants for three years for falsifying research.
Han reported eye-catching data showing rabbits immunized with an AIDS vaccine produced antibodies capable of neutralizing a broad range of HIV strains. After presenting the data at international symposia and in research grant applications, the Iowa State University team Han worked in received $10 million in NIH funding. It looked like a promising vaccine until January 2013 when another laboratory discovered the rabbit serum contained human antibodies.
A NIH investigation into the finding culminated in Han admitting to intentionally spiking rabbit blood with human immunoglobulin G (IgG), antibodies known to be effective against HIV. "This doesn't happen very often. I've been with the NIH for 24 years and it's the first case I've seen in the AIDS research field. This was rather depressing but time marches on," NIH AIDS research chief Dr. James Bradac told the Ames Tribune. The head of Han's research team, Dr. Michael Cho, was not implicated in the fraud.
Han has resigned as assistant professor Iowa State University and cannot receive NIH grants for three years. Some have questioned whether further punishment is needed. "It's unusual to see someone fake results this brazenly. This is fraud, and the question is whether it's a big enough case for the government to go after. I think it's time for the government to criminally prosecute more of these cases," Dr. Ivan Oransky, the physician and journalist behind the Retraction Watch blog, told the Des Moines Register.