Duke’s PottiGate: Another scandal

paul-imageDr. Anil Potti, the Duke University cancer researcher whose resume and research are under scrutiny, is the ideal target for Paul Goldberg, the editor of The Cancer Letter. Goldberg, who has an uncanny sense for hubris, is building a reputation for outing bad apples among cancer researchers, and he has dug up some interesting documents about Potti.

I met Goldberg a year ago at a training course the National Institutes of Health put on for science writers. He was one of the speakers and talked about a lung cancer researcher whose research was flawed and who failed to disclose the $3.6 million she had received from a cigarette maker.

After I read The Cancer Letter’s special issue about Potti, I called Goldberg and got his permission to link to the documents supporting the stories.

There is:

  • A copy of the letter more than two dozen biostatisticians wrote to Dr. Harold Varmus, newly appointed director of the National Cancer Institute, urging for a public inquiry.
  • A copy of the American Cancer Society letter that notified Dr. Sandy Williams, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Duke’s Medical Center, that payments were being halted on a $729,000 grant Potti had been awarded.
  • Three versions of Potti’s resume. One version that includes his now disputed claim of being a Rhodes scholar, a second version that also includes the claim and a third version that doesn’t. Potti used the two versions that include the claim while he was a research fellow at Duke. At the time of the third version, he was already an assistant professor in Duke’s department of medicine and the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.
  • A copy of Potti’s residency application at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, which includes his educational history in India, a transcript from his medical college in India and a personal statement.
  • A faculty profile of Potti, which was published in 2007 in Genome Life, a newsletter of Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. The profile calls him a Rhodes scholar.

Resume padding to gain academic stature is nothing new.

A few months ago, a former Harvard students was indicted for falsifying the resume that got him into the Ivy League school and several scholarships. Last year, California regulators found out that a new law to regulate air pollution was based on statistical work done by a researcher who hadn’t earned a doctorate in statistics from the University of California at Davis as he had claimed. Three years ago, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had to resign when it became clear she had inflated her resume with degrees she never received.

Dr. Anil Potti

But Duke has bigger problems than suspected resume padding by a rising star. The Lancet Oncology, a British medical journal, and the American Cancer Society are investigating potential errors in Potti’s research, because other researchers have been unable to independently replicate breakthrough statistical findings that promised to predict which chemotherapy is best for each cancer patient.

Questions about possible statistical errors in Potti’s research came up last year. Duke halted three clinical trials Potti was involved in and investigated, but didn’t allow outsiders to double-check the data in question, according to Goldberg.

Being able to repeat an experiment and come up with the same results is a basic tenet of research. It’s the litmus test to separate fact from fiction in science.

dr-anil-pottiDuke has had problems with basics before.

  • In 2003, Jesica Santillan, a 17-year-old Mexican immigrant, died after receiving a heart-lung transplant at Duke University Hospital. The transplant was from a donor with the wrong blood type.
  • In 2005, surgical instruments at two hospitals in the Duke University Health System were washed in used hydraulic fluid instead of detergent. The mixup wasn’t detected for weeks, because administrative staff failed to heed multiple complaints by staff.
  • In 2008, research of Homme Hellenga, a Duke professor of biochemistry known for his work with designer enzymes, came under fire and he had to retract two research papers because other researchers who repeat his experiments cannot get the same results. According to a story in the magazine Nature, a student in Hellinga’s lab had raised questions about the experiments before the results were published.

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