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HIV Researcher Going to Prison for Lying About How Good His Vaccine Was

Dong-Pyou Han spiked HIV-infected rabbit blood with human antibodies to prove his vaccine showed promise.

by Jason Koebler
Jul 2 2015, 3:34pm

Image: NIAID

An Iowa-based HIV researcher will be fined $7.2 million and go to jail for nearly five years for spiking rabbit blood with human antibodies in an attempt to convince the National Institutes of Health he was on the verge of creating an HIV vaccine.

The prison sentence for Dong-Pyou Han, a former researcher at Iowa State University, is a rare case in which a scientist is formally punished for performing and publishing fraudulent science. Han pled guilty to two counts of making false statements, in which he "knowingly, voluntarily and intentionally made, or willfully caused another to make, a fraudulent representation to the National Institutes of Health."

Han, a lab manager at the time, admitted to tampering with the results of certain experiments, apparently to cover up for a mix up he made in the lab. The head of Han's team, Michael Cho, had secured $19 million in federal grants for his work—Cho apparently did not know Han tampered with the experiment.

"I am very ashamed myself about my misconduct[sic]," he wrote in a letter last year admitting to the crime. "My misconduct is not done in order to hurt someone. All cause by my foolishness and are my faulty and responsibility. I will resign with my responsibility about my misconduct."

In a grant summary, Han's team said it would push science toward "developing a protective AIDS vaccine." Han's colleagues were not charged with any crimes, as he apparently acted alone in fudging the results.

From his grant proposal:

"There are now estimated 33 million people infected with HIV-1 worldwide. Over 90% of them live in developing countries and are unable to afford currently existing antiretroviral therapies. Although there is a gratifying movement to provide these therapies in many developing nations, the long term costs and toxicities as well as the steady increase in viral resistance against anti-retroviral drugs mandate that major emphasis be placed on the development of a protective vaccine that can prevent acquisition of HIV infection. The major goal of this proposal is to develop novel vaccine delivery platforms that can enhance the human body's B-cell immune responses against HIV-1 with a long-term goal of developing a protective AIDS vaccine."

The NIH still has the right to levy civil charges against Han, according to the agreement. Though academic fraud isn't uncommon, it is uncommon for criminal charges to be brought against researchers.