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After Hellinga review closes, admins quiet

The University has reached a resolution in its two-year investigation of biochemistry professor Homme Hellinga. But Duke officials contacted last week declined to discuss the outcome.

Hellinga remains listed as a James B. Duke professor of biochemistry, but specific details regarding the timeline, scope and results of the internal review of research misconduct allegations against Hellinga remain undisclosed. The University has not issued an announcement regarding the completion of the review.

Dr. Nancy Andrews, vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of the School of Medicine could not be reached for comment. Dr. Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of the Duke University Health System referred comment to Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations.

“The University has conducted a wide-ranging, thorough and unbiased review of all of the events and circumstances surrounding Dr. Hellinga’s two retracted papers,” Schoenfeld wrote in an e-mail. “The details of this review, conducted under the University’s research misconduct policies and procedures, are confidential. The results have been discussed with Dr. Hellinga, and the University has taken appropriate action to address any concerns identified.”

In 2008, Hellinga retracted papers in Science and the Journal of Molecular Biology after questions were raised about the purported function of enzymes designed by Hellinga’s lab. In light of suspicions, Hellinga accused his former graduate student Mary Dwyer of research misconduct related to the retracted studies. In February 2008, the School of Medicine completed an investigation of Dwyer and cleared her of the charges. Hellinga wrote to the Correspondence section of Nature in July 2008 indicating that the University had accepted his request for inquiry into his research.

Hellinga declined to discuss the investigation process and the committee’s decision regarding the allegations against him.

“The University’s policies and federal law concerning the investigation of any allegation of scientific misconduct provide absolute confidentiality to the participants,” Hellinga wrote in an e-mail. “As a member of the Duke faculty, it is my duty to abide by University policies and procedures and federal law. The results of the investigation are only made public in the event of a federal finding of research misconduct. Accordingly, I do not anticipate issuing a more substantive public statement on the investigation or its findings and expect the same is true of the University.”

Biochemistry professors Christian Raetz, John York and Jane Richardson said they have not been alerted to new developments regarding Hellinga.

“All I can tell you is that nothing concerning the outcome of the Hellinga investigation has been passed along to the faculty by the administration or by Hellinga himself so far,” Raetz said. “Maybe it’s still coming.”

Richardson said Duke’s use of confidentiality provisions to avoid public disclosure of the investigation is questionable. She added that the community needs to know the final judgment of the committee and of the University.

Nevertheless, Richardson said the future of the biochemistry department is promising.

“The department is presently on a real upswing and very positively focused on the imminent arrival of Dick Brennan, our new chair, at the new year, and on our active faculty recruiting,” she said, noting that six or eight candidates will be coming to Duke for interviews in January and early February.

In two recent ads announcing open postdoctoral positions at the Center for Functional Connectomics at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul, Hellinga was listed as a researcher at the center. The CFC’s director is Hellinga’s research collaborator George Augustine, professor of neurobiology at Duke’s School of Medicine.

Hellinga confirmed that he will work at CFC, spending part of his time there to continue an ongoing scientific collaboration with Augustine.

Augustine wrote in an e-mail that he “reached out” to Hellinga, but that Hellinga has not yet been hired.

Hellinga’s expertise in protein engineering will advance the CFC’s goal to develop new protein sensors to probe brain function, Augustine noted.

“I can say that Homme Hellinga is an outstanding scientist,” Augustine said. “I have collaborated with him for the past couple of years and have found him to be a wonderful scientific colleague.”

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