Nearly a decade after cancer researcher Anil Potti published a much-lauded paper on how to choose the best kind of chemotherapy for individual patients, federal investigators have officially deemed his work a fraud.
In a report published Monday in the Federal Register, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity determined that Potti faked data in nine papers relating to his cancer trials at Duke University.
Potti is one of the most notorious fraudsters in science; he left Duke half a decade ago in the wake of the scandal. But, as BuzzFeed News has reported, the Office of Research Integrity’s wheels turn slowly and inefficiently.
Duke is “pleased” with the report, according to a statement sent to BuzzFeed News by Doug Stokke, vice president of marketing and communications for Duke Medicine. “We trust this will serve to fully absolve the clinicians and researchers who were unwittingly associated with his actions, and bring closure to others who were affected,” Stokke wrote.
Potti lied in a grant application to the National Institutes of Health about how many patients were enrolled in trials and how many were responding favorably to treatments, according to the new report. He also faked data in nine separate publications supported by six federal grants, including those published in highly regarded journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and Nature Medicine.
Potti’s settlement with the government didn’t include an admission of guilt. But he did agree that should he apply for a government grant, his research must be supervised for five years. Potti has no plans to apply for a federal grant, the report notes.
As of 2012, Potti was a practicing oncologist in Grand Forks, North Dakota, according to the Retraction Watch blog, which first broke the news of the new report. He's reportedly still there, according to the Washington Post.
Potti’s claim that he could pick the best chemotherapy for a patient based on their cancer’s genetic signature was first published in Nature Medicine in 2006. Based on this study, Potti’s group launched several human clinical trials. All have since been shuttered. What’s more, several patients from these trials have filed lawsuits against Potti.
It wasn’t long before other scientists started questioning the findings. Then, in 2008, a medical student working in the Potti lab reported his concerns about the research group’s methods to the Duke leadership.
The next year, two statisticians, Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes, published a paper questioning the technique the Potti lab was using to decide which patients should get which treatment.
But the case didn’t earn widespread attention until July 2010, when industry newsletter The Cancer Letter reported that Potti, who had repeatedly represented himself as a Rhodes scholar in grant applications, had never actually won the prestigious scholarship.
Dominoes began to fall. Within days of the Cancer Letter article, Potti was suspended from Duke and lost a $729,000 grant from the American Cancer Society. In November 2010, Potti’s colleague and co-author Joseph Nevins requested a retraction to the paper criticized by Baggerly and Coombes. That week, Potti resigned from Duke.
Since then, at least 11 of Potti’s papers have been retracted, and he has been reprimanded by the medical boards of both Missouri and North Carolina, according to Retraction Watch.
In May of this year, Duke settled a malpractice lawsuit filed by patients in the trials, for an undisclosed sum.
Cat Ferguson is a writer based in Oakland, California. You can follow her on Twitter @biocuriosity or email her at email@example.com.
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