Hailed as a “breakthrough” at the time, research conducted by a scientist in the U.S. led us to believe that a vaccine for HIV could be well within our grasps. But raised hopes quickly came crashing down when, a few years ago, it was realized that the promising findings were the result of spiked samples and data fiddling.
Now, the scientist behind the multi-million dollar scam, Dong-Pyou Han, has received his punishment for the crime, and it’s much more than a slap on the wrist: He will serve more than four and a half years behind bars and cough up $7.2 million to cover the federal funding he received for the research.
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 caught the eye of Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, who has investigated similar cases before, meaning that the repercussions from his criminal actions were far from over. “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.
Following a storm in the media, charges were pressed in 2014 and his case was later presented to a grand jury, in which he pled guilty. It might be unusual for cases to go this far, but that doesn’t mean he is undeserving of his sentence: He spent years flushing hard-to-come-by funds down the drain and deceived people into thinking we could be close to a desperately needed HIV vaccine. According to the Washington Post, here’s how he did it.
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.
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 a tad 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.
While scientists should not be immune to the law, some have questioned whether jail time will achieve anything, although such a harsh sentence may serve as a deterrent from future acts.