Scientific Misconduct Alleged at NYU

MANHATTAN (CN) – An NYU professor claims he was harassed and fired after reporting that a supervisor tried to “spin” clinical tests of an experimental melanoma vaccine to suit her investment in a patent. In his complaint in New York County Court, Dr. David O’Neill says the same supervisor suppressed data about an HIV vaccine.

     In his 34-page complaint, O’Neill says he “spent eight years creating and running a state of the art laboratory for NYU, a laboratory that was designed specifically for such clinical trials.”
     “NYU spent millions of dollars to build the laboratory; cancer patients donated their invaluable time and placed themselves at risk in the hope that the trial would lead to a cure,” O’Neill said. “While the research succeeded in uncovering important scientific information, it failed to affirm NYU’s preferred technique. The research also failed to support the interest of plaintiff’s supervisor, a patent holder in the technique being tested.”
     O’Neill’s supervisor, Dr. Nina Bhardwaj, is not named as a defendant.
     O’Neill’s complaint continues: “As she wrote, plaintiff’s supervisor sought to ‘spin’ the results of the research; she changed the analysis the authors of the study originally accepted; and she told Dr. O’Neill not to report important underlying raw data.” (Citations to exhibits omitted.)
     O’Neill says that he “in good faith reported his concerns about research misconduct to his department head. When his request for an investigation was ignored, he went through the appropriate channels to other supervisors, deans, and officers.”
     O’Neill says he was hired in 2002 as assistant director of the NYU Cancer Institute’s Vaccine/Cell Lab. He say NYU referred to him as the lab’s “Director” in correspondence. It paid him $140,000 a year.
     Bhardwaj, an M.D.-Ph.D. was, or is, director of the Tumor Vaccine Program; her supervisor was (nonparty) Dr. William Carroll, director of the NYU Cancer Institute.
     O’Neill claims that on Oct. 9, 2008, Bhardwaj sent him an email stating “that she was discussing ‘how to spin this’ [clinical trial results]” with a doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
     Bhardwaj wrote that she wanted the other doctor’s “‘opinion on how to sell this,'” the complaint states.
     “She also expressed concern about a Boston study using the dendritic cell vaccine to treat patients with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection, for which Dr. Bhardwaj was also the principal investigator and which had even less favorable results than the NYU study,” the complaint states. “Dr. Bhardwaj questioned ‘where we can publish this [research] given the data.’ The Boston study of the dendritic cell vaccine had been finished in or around 2005 and has never been published.” (Parentheses and brackets in complaint.)
     Then, O’Neill says, he submitted the abstract of a paper, with himself as lead author, and Bhardwaj as the last of ten co-authors, for consideration to be read at an international meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASOC), to be held at Orlando in June 2009. When the abstract was selected, O’Neill says, Bhardwaj insisted that she be allowed to give the presentation. O’Neill says this violated the ASCO rules, but she and Carroll, the NYU Cancer Institute director, pressured him to let her do it. The tiff ended with O’Neill allowed to do the presentation, he says.
     After this, however, he says Bhardwaj retaliated, with “harsh and critical emails,” by blocking his promotion, changing his job description, and “suspect changes” to a paper of which he was lead author. He claims the suspect changes “minimized statistically significant differences between … two types of vaccines, creating a more favorable appearance for the dendritic cell vaccine,” and that Bhardwaj instructed him “to remove the tables of raw data completely and replace them with tables showing geometric means of manipulated data,” among other things.
     O’Neill says to follow these instructions would be scientific misconduct.
     He says he reported his concerns of research misconduct to his department head, then “through the appropriate channels to other supervisors, deans, and officers” when his “request for an investigation was ignored.”
     He claims that even though more than five manuals and codes of conduct required him to report scientific misconduct without fear of reprisal, “each of those promises was broken.”
     “He experienced repeated retaliation; his anticipated promotion was stalled; he was effectively demoted; and then he was abruptly fired,” the complaint states.
     O’Neill seeks reinstatement, lost wages, punitive damages for breach of contract, retaliation and defamation, and a declaration that the university violated its own policies on ethical conduct. Named as defendants are NYU, NYU Hospitals Center and NYU Langone Medical Center for. He is represented by Debra Raskin with Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard.

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