A lawsuit brought by a whistleblower against Duke University accuses former researchers of using false data to win dozens of government grants totaling more than $200 million.
The federal suit was brought by a former Duke researcher, Joseph M. Thomas, on behalf of the U.S. government under the False Claims Act, a federal law used to combat fraud against government agencies. Thomas named Duke University, Duke University Health System, retired Duke pulmonologist William Foster and former researcher Erin Potts-Kant.
It alleges that data was falsified or fabricated by Potts-Kant working under the supervision of Foster in a lab that conducted research on respiratory function and illnesses such as asthma. Since 2006, the suit said, scientists relied on the bad data to publish papers and seek grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies.
“Defendants have abused the public trust,” the lawsuit said. “They have engaged in systematic research misconduct and fraud, and failed to comply with the terms, conditions and assurances of their grant awards.”
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Potts-Kant was accused of embezzling money from Duke in 2013, which triggered an internal review of her research findings at the university. She left Duke and was eventually convicted of embezzlement, but the lawsuit contends that the university and Foster had for years turned a blind eye to repeated warnings about suspected research misconduct by Potts-Kant.
Further, the suit alleges that Duke concealed and minimized the extent of the wrongdoing after the fact. It claims that during an internal review in 2013, a Duke official asked those looking into the fraud to communicate by phone so as not to create “a paper trail.”
The lawsuit claims that during an internal review in 2013, a Duke official asked those looking into the fraud to communicate by phone so as not to create ‘a paper trail.’
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, issued a statement saying the university handled the situation appropriately.
“Duke is committed to maintaining the highest standards of integrity in research,” he said. “After Duke learned that a former employee, Erin Potts-Kant, had been embezzling funds from the university (for which she later was prosecuted and convicted), we also discovered discrepancies in some data that she had been generating in research projects. Even though the full scope of Ms. Potts-Kant’s actions were not known at the time, Duke notified several government agencies in June 2013 about the matter and immediately launched a formal scientific misconduct investigation, as required by federal law. Since then, Duke has provided extensive information to the government regarding the grants in question, and we will continue to cooperate with their investigation.”
He declined further comment. Matthew Broughton, a Roanoke, Va., attorney who represents Thomas, declined to discuss the lawsuit or make his client available. Efforts to reach Foster and Potts-Kant were unsuccessful.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2015 in U.S. District Court in Virginia and was sealed by the court until recently. It was first reported online Thursday by Science and a publication called Retraction Watch.
Under the False Claims Act, Duke could be liable for triple damages to the government plus other fines. Thomas, a cell biologist from 2008 to 2012, seeks a percentage of Duke’s settlement with the government, plus attorney’s fees.
It’s not the first time Duke has been tarnished by allegations of research misconduct. Former Duke cancer researcher Dr. Anil Potti falsified results that were published in the most prestigious scientific journals, in a widely reported scandal a few years ago. Last year, in a deal with the federal government, Potti agreed not to do research for five years. Duke settled lawsuits with the families of eight cancer patients who had been in clinical trials based on the phony research.
It’s not the first time Duke has been tarnished by allegations of research misconduct. Former Duke cancer researcher Dr. Anil Potti falsified results that were published in the most prestigious scientific journals.
Contained in the new suit are similarly explosive accusations that Potts-Kant’s data was either made up, manipulated or came from experiments that were done incorrectly. The effects rippled across Duke and across other universities, because Foster’s Airway Physiology Laboratory was a hub of scientific collaboration that conducted experiments for others. Foster was considered a leading researcher in the area of inflammation of the respiratory airways.
According to the lawsuit, Potts-Kant worked in the lab using several machines that measure lung functions by force-ventilating mice. Potts-Kant completed experiments in a fraction of the time that it took another scientist, the suit said, suggesting that either experiments weren’t performed or results were manipulated. Other researchers were unable to replicate the results, which often conformed to scientists’ preconceived theories, and little raw data was found during Duke’s subsequent internal review. Further, the suit said that thousands of mice were killed for no purpose when antigens were administered at too high a dose.
The fraudulent results were used in 38 research papers or journal articles co-written by Potts-Kant, the suit said, at a time when she was a junior employee in her early 30s. Foster was also an author on 38 of the papers. The suit alleged that Foster failed to supervise Potts-Kant, disregarded warnings about her work and did not compare her results to data stored in the machines.
The false research in the publications was submitted to government agencies by Duke to show progress on grant-funded projects, the suit claimed.
Duke applied for and received 49 grants totaling almost $83 million, and Duke and other universities received 15 multi-year grants for $121 million, the suit said, based on the bogus findings.
News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.