DES MOINES — An Iowa State University assistant professor resigned after being accused of spiking rabbit blood to falsely show that an AIDS vaccine was working in the research animals.Dong-Pyou Han was an assistant professor of biomedical sciences. He resigned in October after admitting responsibility, an ISU spokesman said.
The fraudulent results helped an ISU research team gain millions of dollars in federal money, according to James Bradac, who helps oversee AIDS vaccine grants for the National Institutes of Health.
Bradac said in a phone interview Monday that Han apparently added human blood components to the rabbit blood to skew experiments' results. He said this was the worst case of research fraud he'd seen in his 24 years at the federal agency.
The human blood came from people whose bodies had produced antibodies to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, Bradac said. The presence of these antibodies in the rabbits' blood made it appear that the vaccine was spurring the animals to build defenses against HIV.
"This positive result was striking, and it caught everybody's attention," Bradac said.
Federal documents released Monday show the rabbit-blood results were presented at numerous scientific meetings over several years. But researchers at other institutions became suspicious after they were unsuccessful in duplicating the ISU results.
The ISU team is led by Michael Cho, a biomedical professor who came to Ames several years ago from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
Bradac said Cho started receiving federal grants for the research in 2008, when he was at Case Western. Cho does not face discipline in the matter, said ISU spokesman John McCarroll.
Bradac said Han worked for Cho for about 15 years and transferred to ISU with him. In all, the team was awarded about $19 million in multi-year grants, which also financed related research at several institutions. About $10 million of that money was awarded after Cho's team reported "exciting results" that now appear to have been fraudulent, Bradac said.
McCarroll said Cho was alerted in January to possible problems with his team's experiments.
"At Iowa State's request, the research samples in question were examined by researchers at another university; they confirmed samples had been spiked," McCarroll wrote in an email. to
Han was identified in August as the likely suspect, McCarroll said.
"He later admitted responsibility and resigned from Iowa State, effective Oct. 4, 2013," McCarroll said.
Han could not be reached for comment. Cho did not respond to requests for comment.
Bradac, the federal administrator, said Han apparently acted without the knowledge of the rest of his team.
"A large amount of what they were focusing on was flushed down because of this one guy," he said.
The vaccine testing was central to the $19 million in grants, but other activities also were covered by the money, Bradac said. About $4 million has yet to be spent.
The federal agency is talking to ISU leaders about whether that money still will be disbursed. Bradac said he didn't know whether a refund might be requested.
It's unusual for a university to have to repay research grant money, he said.
Ivan Oransky, a physician and medical journalist, wrote about the sanctions against Han Monday morning on a blog called "Retraction Watch."
Oransky, who works in New York, said it's important for researchers to be held accountable for misconduct. The Han case stands out from most others, he said.
"It's unusual to see someone fake results this brazenly," Oransky said.
Most incidents of misconduct involve someone writing down false data, not altering physical evidence, he said.
The federal documents, which were posted on a government website, say Han agreed to be banned from participating in any federally financed research for three years. Oransky said that's an unusually strong penalty for a scientist.
Oransky said the federal documents suggest ISU officials promptly looked into the suspicions of fraud and reported their findings.
That's a good sign, he said. Too often, he said, research institutions cover up misconduct or publish opaque accounts that fail to make clear what happened.
However, he said, senior faculty should be held accountable in such cases, because they're supposed to monitor their staff members' work.
Oransky said he hoped federal prosecutors would look into the allegations that millions of taxpayer dollars were awarded based on lies.
"This is fraud, and the question is whether it's a big enough case for the government to go after," he said. "…I think it's time for the government to criminally prosecute more of these cases."