Former Iowa State University scientist Dong-Pyou Han, has been sentenced to jail for more than 4 years for faking HIV vaccine trial data.
The guilty scientist had altered blood samples by contaminating it with rabbit blood to make it appear he had achieved a breakthrough toward a potential vaccine against HIV. He was sentenced on Wednesday to more than 4 ½ years in prison for making false statements in research reports. Dong-Pyou Han, must also pay $7.2 million to a federal government agency that funded the research. He entered a plea agreement in February admitting guilt to two counts of making false statements.
Government prosecutors said Han’s misconduct dates to 2008 when he worked at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland under professor Michael Cho, who was leading a team testing an experimental HIV vaccine on rabbits.
Seven years ago, Han was working in the lab of Professor Michael Cho, who at the time was based at Case Western Reserve University. His team began injecting an experimental HIV vaccine into rabbits to see if it could evoke an appropriate immune response, and remarkably it seemed to work. Antibodies were discovered in the blood samples, suggesting the animals were starting to tackle the virus. Of course, Cho was ecstatic about the finding and requested more money to continue the research.
Little did he know that the antibodies were actually the result of a mix up with samples that contained human antibodies. But rather than coming clean of the supposedly accidental error, Han continued to lace samples with human antibodies, making it look more and more convincing that the candidate could be the groundbreaking vaccine everyone had been yearning for. Han continued to spike the results to avoid disappointing Cho, after the scientific community became excited that the team could be on the verge of a vaccine.
While repeatability is critical in scientific research, Han had obviously failed to take this into consideration and, of course, other groups later tried to replicate the findings. After requesting a sample from Cho’s lab to assist their investigation, Harvard researchers were surprised to find human antibodies in a rabbit blood sample. An investigation was launched, and Han had no choice but to admit what he had done.
This is not only an extremely rare occurrence in research, with only a handful of scientists having been sent to prison for scientific misconduct so far, but also a significant step up from the telling off he originally received. After his research institution, Iowa State University, concluded that he had been fabricating data back in 2013, he was forced to admit his guilt and resign. He was also given a three-year ban on receiving federal research funds, and his university had to pay back half a million dollars to the National Institutes of Health to cover the salary he was given.
Unfortunately for Han, his case came under the radar of Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, who has investigated similar cases before. “This seems like a very light penalty for a doctor who purposely tampered with a research trial and directly caused millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on fraudulent studies,” Grassley wrote in a letter to the office that hands out punishments for scientific misconduct.
Judge James Gritzner sentenced Han to 57 months in prison and three years of supervision upon release. Han must repay the National Institutes of Health $7.2 million.