Questions linger about Hellinga case

2004 was a triumphant year for Homme Hellinga, James B. Duke professor of biochemistry. He had just received a $2.5 million Director’s Pioneer award from the National Institutes of Health, won a $10,000 Feynman Prize and discovered a way to engineer a powerful enzyme from a simple protein. The following year, he secured a titled professorship at the University. Hellinga’s accomplishments shone with promise—both Duke and the field were excited for the future.

But three years later, those sentiments dimmed. John Richard, professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Buffalo, had collaborated with Hellinga on his research. But in 2007, while Richard and his own team followed Hellinga’s notes, they discovered that his designed enzyme—whose details were published in Science magazine and the Journal of Molecular Biology—did not perform as Hellinga alleged it did, according to a 2008 article in Nature magazine. Suspicions began to rise about the decorated scientist’s integrity.

Now, three years after those suspicions first arose, the situation has yet to be resolved. Hellinga remains a titled member of the biochemistry faculty and the shadow of the controversy looms over the department and Duke’s reputation.

In Fall 2007, following Richard’s findings, Hellinga attributed the mistakes in the experiment to his former graduate student, Mary Dwyer, and requested a formal inquiry of her. Dwyer—who told Nature she raised concerns about the data with Hellinga before publication—was cleared of all wrongdoing in February 2008 and both of the papers in question were retracted. Months later, on July 24, Hellinga wrote to the Correspondence section of Nature that the University had granted his request for further investigation, acknowledging “personal responsibility to the scientific community” and to his students and colleagues for the errors.

“So many questions were being raised, that I thought it would be appropriate that somebody had a look at this and—as it says in the letter, in a dispassionate, objective way—try to figure out the facts and the rights and wrongs of the case,” Hellinga said in an interview with The Chronicle this month.

Senior Medical School officials—including Nancy Andrews, dean and vice chancellor for academic affairs, Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for research, and Wesley Byerly, associate dean for research services—referred all questions regarding the status and scope of the investigation to Doug Stokke, assistant vice president of communications for Duke University Health System. Andrews, Kornbluth and Byerly declined to comment further.

“Duke is committed to nurturing and supporting the highest quality science and we review all allegations concerning research integrity according to established procedures,” Stokke wrote in an e-mail statement on behalf of medical school administrators. “We trust that you and your readers will understand that it would be inappropriate for Duke to comment on any specific proceedings due to confidentiality and other restrictions.”

The investigation

The University has a multi-step process in place to address research misconduct—defined as “fabrication, falsification or plagiarism”—on the part of Duke faculty.

Such investigations—whose details are confidential—are handled by Byerly, the Medical Center’s misconduct review officer.

When a suspicion of misconduct is relayed to the misconduct review officer, he notifies the vice chancellor for academic affairs—currently Andrews—and they decide whether to forward it to a standing committee for inquiry. After the standing committee reports back, the vice chancellor can choose to launch a formal investigation.

At this point, an ad hoc committee, whose members are chosen by the vice chancellor for their expertise and impartiality, is formed. The committee prepares a final report and the vice chancellor determines a course of action. Ad-hoc committees can include experts from outside institutions, if deemed appropriate by the vice chancellor. The identity of the members on the committee is undisclosed.

A number of abnormalities have arisen in this particular case.

Jane Richardson, also a James B. Duke professor of biochemistry, said there are advantages and disadvantages to having an internal office investigate. An outside committee might not understand local issues, the intangibles and who the people involved are, she said. In addition, by requesting an investigation of himself, Hellinga became both the accused and complaining party.

It remains unclear what influence Hellinga, as the complainant, had on determining the charges.

“Duke has a financial as well as a public relations interest here in keeping [Hellinga] and keeping him going,” Richardson said. “They really have a conflict of interest in this—as any institution would to some extent. This never looks good for a school’s reputation.”

She said, however, that she would not question the sincerity of those currently serving on the committee.

“They definitely take their job very seriously,” Richardson said.

Provost Peter Lange said internal investigations are the standard across the country.

Unless there are “extenuating circumstances,” the entire investigation process should take no more than 312 days—less than one year. By this summer, Hellinga’s investigation would have lasted two years.

Chris Raetz, chair of the biochemistry department from 1993 to 2007 and a current professor, said people he meets across the country are still asking about how Duke is handling the situation. His response, he said, is that it has been a year and a half into the investigation, and there is still no word of a resolution.

“I mean, yes, he deserves due process by all means, and we don’t want to jeopardize that, but there has to be a resolution at some point,” Raetz said. “The administration should be held accountable for wrapping it up at this point.”

The situation has been further complicated by Hellinga’s conduct toward Dwyer. Issues of scientific misconduct are tied together with allegations of misconduct as a mentor.

Duke University Policy and Procedures Governing Misconduct in Research, outlined in the Faculty Handbook and last revised January 2007, state that “neglecting to supervise others properly in work for which the faculty member is responsible,” is an inappropriate practice, but does not necessarily represent misconduct in research—possibly putting it outside the parameters of the investigation.

The document also states that principal investigators—faculty members who head their own labs—must bear primary responsibility for the research conducted under their supervision.

Student impact ‘not just about Dwyer’

The Hellinga situation has elicited an outcry not only from scientists frustrated by his failure to explain experimental mistakes, but from graduate students angered by his willingness to accuse Dwyer.

“To the outside world, the University has done nothing, except maybe halfheartedly confirmed that they’re investigating Homme [Hellinga] on his own terms,” said Louis Metzger, a recent Ph.D. graduate in biochemistry. “But they never even said what the scope of their investigation is.”

In the summer that followed Dwyer’s exoneration—prior to Hellinga’s own request for an investigation—Metzger and several other graduate students in biochemistry drafted a petition requesting a formal investigation of Hellinga on two possible offenses: that he published Dwyer’s data despite her objections, and that he pursued “baseless and malicious, or reckless” misconduct charges against her.

Metzger delivered notarized copies of the petition July 3 to the offices of eight University administrators, including Kornbluth, Andrews, Lange, interim Chair of Biochemistry Kenneth Kreuzer and President Richard Brodhead. Each copy bore 18 signatures of current students and recent graduates. Many more wanted to sign, Metzger said, but were afraid or felt it was not in their best professional interests.

Dwyer was not informed of the petition. Metzger said he wanted the petition to be about the principles behind the incident instead of perceived as a personal vendetta.

Andrews met Metzger the same day he delivered the petition specifically to inquire about Dwyer’s involvement. Metzger clarified that he believed she was unaware of it and they did not discuss further issues. He received no response from the other recipients and later that month in Nature, Hellinga publicly announced his investigation.  

One year later, the investigation was pending, and Metzger still had no word about its status or the petition. He requested to meet with Andrews and was granted a meeting with Kornbluth late last August.

Metzger said he understood the investigation was confidential, but he wanted confirmation that the students’ concerns were being addressed. After a series of exchanges and meetings, Kornbluth confirmed that the committee had been made aware of the petition and would discuss the issues within its purview.

One month later in October 2009, Hellinga’s former post-doctoral student published results that contradicted two more of his papers. In an open house with biochemistry students that month, Andrews declined to answer questions about the ongoing investigation, Metzger said.

“The worst part in the department is the students feel that Duke and the department are stonewalling and not doing anything about this,” Richardson said. “It’s unclear that the investigation took under mandate what the students asked.”

Richardson said she is closer to the environment in Hellinga’s lab than most faculty in the department, as she and her husband have also worked in protein design and served on the Ph.D. defense committees for many of Hellinga’s former students. Prior to the inquiry of Dwyer, the Richardsons were close friends with Hellinga and his wife, Lorena Beese, also a James B. Duke professor of biochemistry.

“I think [Hellinga is] brilliant and his ideas are really going to work in the long run,” Richardson said. “His part in this is also a tragedy.”

Richardson said, however, that Hellinga’s lab is “much too hard” on graduate students.

“This is not just about Mary Dwyer,” she said.

James Qiu, currently a post-doctoral associate at Tufts University, joined Hellinga’s lab as a graduate student in 2003 and worked there for three years before switching laboratories—an unusual move—and graduating in July 2009. Qiu said there is a fundamental problem regarding graduate students’ protection.

 “[Dwyer] was really Homme’s favorite graduate student,” he said. “That he turned around and accused her of academic misconduct when the results were not what he wanted them to be after previously winning prestigious awards for the same work is very disturbing. It gives the perception that any professor could level a charge at any student at any time.”

Richardson said she feels it would be better if Hellinga does not take graduate students in the future.

“It would mean we wouldn’t have to hassle every time we get a new class in, warning people in a way that would work,” she said.

A repairable department

Many faculty and students said the pending investigation has affected Duke’s reputation, specifically hampering the search for a new chair of biochemistry.

Professors and students said they are often asked about the Hellinga controversy at job interviews and scientific conferences.

“I mentioned I was from Duke and people didn’t want to ask me about the science, they wanted to ask me about this Hellinga character,” Qiu said, relating his experience at a conference in New Hampshire.

This year, the biochemistry department embarked on its third chair search in as many years.

Richardson said she thinks the unresolved investigation has affected the effort to fill the position.

 “It’s hard to believe this wouldn’t have a strong effect on people,” she said. “I doubt we’ll get a chair until this is all taken care of.”

Raetz said, however, that chair searches are generally lengthy processes and the biochemistry department has been functioning well with an interim leader.

Despite the taint of the investigation, students and faculty appreciate the cohesiveness of the graduate student population in the biochemistry department.

“Our program has been damaged by this affair, but it is not broken,” Metzger said.


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