US scientist sentenced to prison for fake HIV vaccine research

Reuters / Eddie Keogh
Dong-Pyou Han, a 58-year-old former Iowa State University researcher, was sentenced to prison for almost five years for faking the results of an HIV vaccine experiment – the “success” of which led to millions of dollars in government grants.

Han, 58, spent millions of dollars in federal grants to fund years of work on his research, which was considered groundbreaking at the time. Other researchers at Iowa State scrutinized and called into question his apparently miraculous findings related to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Han eventually admitted to mixing human antibodies into rabbit blood to make his vaccine appear more effective in test animals, forcing him to resign his university position in 2013

READ MORE: Professor resigns after falsified AIDS vaccine study wins $19mn grant

On Wednesday, Han was sentenced to four years, nine months in prison, and was ordered to repay more than $7 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This is something of a rarity – scientists don’t lose their jobs very often for academic misconduct, and almost never see prison time for unethical behavior like fabricating their research.

Such an uncommon fate is the result of Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) catching wind of Han’s fraud and being shocked by the scale of wasted funds.

“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 noted in a 2014 letter to the investigatory office that deals with this kind of misconduct.

Han’s attorney, Joseph Herrold, said that the tainting of samples was at first an accident. Han was then too embarrassed to admit the mistake, according to Herrold, leading him to cover up the error by continually modifying samples. He asked that Han be put on probation, pointing to his client’s lack of a criminal record.

The prosecutors insisted that prison time was necessary to act as a deterrent against future cases of fraud.

“Just because somebody has a PhD, just because someone’s involved in the scientific community, doesn’t mean they’re going to necessarily be treated differently than anyone else who’s committed a criminal offense,” Nicholas Kleinfeldt, US attorney for the southern district of Iowa, told CNN.

Han’s total sentence includes 57 months in prison, three years supervised release, over $7.2 million in restitution and two $100 special assessments, according to court documents.