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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Guilty Plea in AIDS Vaccine Scam

DES MOINES (CN) - An Iowa State University professor pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of falsifying research to make it appear that he had discovered an AIDS vaccine.

Dr. Dong Pyou Han, working under Dr. Michael Cho, had received federal grant money from the National Institute of Health to conduct research on an AIDS vaccine, using rabbits as test subjects, according to the June 4, 2014 criminal complaint.

Cho is not a party to the case.

"Dr. Han faked experiment results by adding human antibodies to blood draws from rabbits," Health and Human Services Special Agent Blair Johnston wrote in the complaint. "[He] made it appear that Dr. Cho's AIDS vaccine was effective when, in fact, it was not."

After several years of promising results, which showed that rabbits injected with the GP41 vaccine developed antibodies to the HIV virus, the NIH grant program manager asked Cho to provide samples of the rabbit sera to a researcher at Harvard for corroboration.

At Harvard, Dr. Ellis Reinherz noticed something was amiss. The neutralizing activity Cho's lab reported was due to the rabbit blood being spiked with human antibodies, not from the rabbits generating their own immune response, according to the complaint.

Further investigation into Cho's lab revealed that Han had been tampering with the research results for years.

Han's position at the university was dependent upon grant funding.

The deceptive results raked in $19 million in federal grant money, National Institute of Health employee James Bradac told the New York Daily News in December 2013.

Han's Sept. 30, 2013 confession and resignation letter, attached to the criminal complaint, states: "I am very ashamed myself about my misconduct. ... I was foolish, coward, and not frank. 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."

None of the other researchers in Cho's lab were implicated in the scam.

Han faces up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each of two counts at his May 29 sentencing hearing.

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