Iowa Professor Lied In HIV Vaccine Study

Bad news out of Iowa State: Dong-Pyou Han, who served as an assistant professor at the university, apparently faked the results of an HIV vaccine trial by spiking rabbit blood with human antibodies. His results got millions more in research dollars for his research team before the lie was caught and the researcher resigned in October, presumably in disgrace. Because research is a choose-your-own-adventure novel, and not, well, science.

So here's what apparently happened: According to James Bradac of the National Institutes of Health, Han just added a bit of human blood to his rabbit blood experiments. The human blood already had HIV antibodies in it, formed in response to the presence of the virus, which made it look like the vaccine Han was testing on the rabbit blood might just be working. “This positive result was striking, and it caught everybody’s attention,” said Bradac. Of course, it wasn't actually, which became apparent when other researchers at other institutions tried to replicate the results.

According to Bradac, this type of fraud is actually pretty rare, and this might be the worst case he's seen in more than two decades in the field. Usually, people don't, you know, actually tamper with the evidence. It's much more fashionable to fudge the numbers a bit—a pencil smudge here, a typo there. "It's unusual to see someone fake results this brazenly," said Ivan Oranksky, a physician and journalist who runs a blog called Retraction Watch.

Fortunately, it looks like not all HIV-related trials are frauds, but Han's poor judgement probably got him disinvited from a whole bunch of Christmas parties. The case takes on an additional unfortunate dimension when you realize that the head of Han's team, Michael Cho, transferred to Iowa State a few years ago... and Han came with him, after having worked with him at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. There's no better way to reward your boss for getting you a job than by forging results in his trial. (Or, maybe, Han was mad about having to transfer to Iowa, and was looking to get the team an invitation from one of the University of California system schools.)