Technology & Science

Fake HIV research lands ex-university scientist 4.5-year prison term

A former Iowa State University scientist who altered blood samples to make it appear he had achieved a breakthrough toward a potential vaccine against HIV was sentenced Wednesday to more than 4½ years in prison for making false statements in research reports.

Dong-Pyou Han, 58, must also pay $7.2M US to NIH, which funded research

Dony-Pyou Han, 58, was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison and must repay $7.2 million US of research funding to a federal government agency for making false statements in research reports. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

A former Iowa State University scientist who altered blood samples to make it appear he had achieved a breakthrough toward a potential vaccine against HIV was sentenced Wednesday to more than 4½ years in prison for making false statements in research reports.

Dong-Pyou Han, 58, also must pay $7.2 million US 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. Cho's team began receiving National Institutes of Health funding, and he soon reported the vaccine was causing rabbits to develop antibodies to HIV, which was considered a major breakthrough.

Han said he initially accidentally mixed human blood with rabbit blood making the potential vaccine appear to increase an immune defense against HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. Han continued to spike the results to avoid disappointing Cho, his mentor, after the scientific community became excited that the team could be on the verge of a vaccine.

Iowa State recruited Cho in 2009, and his team — including Han — continue the research with NIH funding. A group of researchers at Harvard University found in January 2013 the promising results had been achieved with rabbit blood spiked with human antibodies.

Han led 'otherwise admirable life': lawyer

Han's attorney Joseph Herrold, a federal public defender, asked for probation instead of prison.

"Here, there is little reason to believe that Dr. Han has not already been deterred from any future criminal conduct. His conduct is aberrational in an otherwise admirable life," Herrold wrote in a sentencing report filed Monday. "He regrets the hurt he has caused to his friends and colleagues, the damage he has caused to government funded scientific research, and the pain he has caused any members of the public who had high hopes based on his falsehood."

Herrold said Han has lost the ability to work in his field of choice and is likely to be deported by immigration officials "and possibly never permitted to return," separating him from his wife and two adult children who are U.S. citizens. Han, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, is a lawful permanent U.S. resident.

Government prosecutors sought prison time to serve as a deterrent to Han and others who might consider research fraud.

"It is important that we stand up not just for punishing the fraud committed against the United States government, but for the research that should be legitimately taking place on this devastating disease," U.S. Attorney Nicholas A. Klinefeldt said in a statement.

Judge James Gritzner sentenced Han to 57 months in prison and three years of supervision upon release. Han must repay NIH $7.2 million.

Cho's team continues to work on the vaccine at ISU and has subsequently obtained funding.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.