New report resurrects Potti scandal
More than four years after former Duke researcher Dr. Anil Potti resigned in a scandal that made national headlines, the case has resurfaced—this time for the manner in which Duke handled concerns about Potti's research from a medical student.
A report published earlier this week in The Cancer Letter, a weekly national newsletter on cancer research, alleges that Duke professors and deans tried to quiet a whistleblower on Potti's research in 2008, two years before formal investigations into Potti's work led to his resignation. Bradford Perez, a third-year medical student working in Potti's lab at the time, raised concerns about possible misconduct and falsification of data in Potti's research. When he tried to pursue the matter, however, he was told that pressing forward would result in a loss of funding for his own research and an internal investigation at Duke, and he was discouraged from taking further action, per The Cancer Letter's report.
The new information comes from emails and depositions given in a Durham County Superior Court case filed by patients involved in Potti's clincial trials. Filed in October 2011—with defendants including the University, Duke University Health System, Potti and several administrators—the case is set to be heard in court beginning the week of Jan. 26.
Duke Medicine officials deferred comment to Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for government relations and public affairs.
Schoenfeld noted that Duke cannot comment on pending litigation.
"What the University learned, and acknowledged to the [Institute of Medicine], was that there were concerns about the research that had been raised over the years," Schoenfeld wrote in an email Tuesday.
Potti came to Duke on a fellowship in 2003, and was granted his own lab in the now-dismantled Institute of Genome Sciences and Policy in 2006. Biostatisticians from other institutions first raised questions about the validity of his research in 2007, but Potti stood by his work and the matter was not looked into further.
Duke first began investigating Potti in Summer 2010, when The Cancer Letter reported that Potti had falsified information on his resume. Potti was placed on administrative leave and his clinical trials were suspended as Duke investigated allegations regarding false information both on Potti's resume and in his research. In November 2010, Potti resigned.
Many of Potti's papers have been retracted in the years since, and an investigation by the Institute of Medicine noted several issues with Duke's handling of the case in a 2012 report.
According to The Cancer Letter's report, the series of events could have been dramatically different if Perez's concerns had been pursued in 2008. Perez, now a resident at Duke Hospital, discussed his worries with several associate deans at the School of Medicine before coming to Dr. Joseph Nevins, who had served as a mentor to Potti.
In a meeting that April, Nevins told Perez that he should not pursue his concerns about Potti's potential misconduct, as it could be detrimental to Perez's career and could make it difficult for him to obtain future research funding, according to the report. Perez did not take the matter up with external parties, but he resigned from Potti's lab soon after speaking with Nevins and withdrew his name from papers on which he was a co-author with Potti.
"In raising these concerns, I have nothing to gain and everything to lose," Perez wrote in the memo he sent to professors about Potti's research in 2008.
Until this week's edition of The Cancer Letter, Perez's involvement in the Potti incident had not been publicly reported. It was not disclosed in the IOM's review of the situation, although emails obtained by The Cancer Letter show that Duke administrators—including Dr. Sally Kornbluth, now provost and at the time vice dean for research at the School of Medicine, and Dr. Victor Dzau, former chancellor of DUHS—were aware that Perez had come forward with concerns about the research.