publication date: Jan. 9, 2015
Nevins Acknowledges Gravity of the Situation
Internal Duke emails obtained by The Cancer Letter confirm this version of events.
In an email to Goodman late on March 31, Perez describes his meeting with Nevins.
“[Nevins] seemed very tense which I think is a clear sign that there are serious issues to be dealt with,” Perez wrote. “He referred to the situation as being somewhere along the spectrum between sloppy research and a difference of opinion to research fraud,” Perez writes.
“He asked me not to send the letter to HHMI because he felt that my additional year would not get funded anyway and he thought that by sending that letter I would essentially be initiating an internal Duke investigation. I think he wants to avoid that.
“He wants to meet on Friday to start discussing my concerns that I outlined on the application since we basically spoke in generalities during our meeting today.
“He recognizes that he has a serious conflict of interest in this matter but wanted the chance to deal with the situation in a non-partisan way himself. That seems fair. It’s my assumption that for his own benefit he wants to be in the driver’s seat so that if an investigation needs to be done he can be the one to initiate that.
Here, “out of respect for Dr. Nevins and Duke as an institution,” Perez agrees to not submit the account of problems at the lab to HHMI, leaving it to Duke to support his application for another year of funding.
Nevins’s acknowledgment that Potti may have committed “research fraud” merits attention. At a time when no outside critic is suggesting anything more sinister than carelessness and ignorance, Perez has heard Goodman speak of “misconduct” and now he hears Nevins mention “research fraud.”
In subsequent communications with Perez, Goodman appears to play the role of peacemaker.
“Sounds like Anil is genuinely sorry about your year,” Goodman writes in an April 1 email to Perez. “A lunch meeting would probably not be bad. Avoid the circumstances that led to your departure and enjoy conversing about other things. There is no doubt that if you let HHMI know of your concerns that the proper way to deal with it would be to let someone internally know first.”
Then Goodman dangles the possibility of Nevins securing another job for Perez:
“I thought that Dr. Nevins was going to try to find you another lab to finish out the year. Am I wrong about that? Again HHMI funds the investigator and the lab, not the student. They will probably feel that this is an institutional matter and may not feel loyalty to you.”
“For My Own Health…”
Intensive wrangling and uncertainty about his future appear to take a toll on Perez. He wants this torture to end.
“For my own health, I need to remove myself from this situation entirely,” he writes to Goodman on April 1. “I largely made the decision to do another third year so that would be possible. I am happy to go to a final luncheon and I am happy to meet with Dr. Nevins (as many times as necessary) to discuss concerns with him so that he can take the appropriate steps to correct the research. I don’t want to find myself working in his lab or any affiliated lab for the next 5 months to finish out this fellowship term. While I do feel that me leaving is a necessary step, I don’t feel that a formal investigation is necessary at this time. Dr. Nevins may do a very good job of making sure that all appropriate measures are taken.”
Documents show that at that time controversy around Potti reaches the medical school’s top leadership.
In an email April 10, 2008, Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for research, writes to Nancy Andrews, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine and vice chancellor for academic affairs, and Edward Buckley, interim vice dean for medical education:
“Nancy (and Ed):
“Ed Buckley spoke to me briefly (and confidentially of course) about Anil Potti to see if we had any background on this. I have no first-hand knowledge, but remembered seeing the correspondence in Nature Medicine that is described in the link below. This link (which I came upon through google in my attempt to remember in which journal I had seen the original correspondence) seems to be a follow-up and contains the link to the original Nature Medicine correspondence—though I of course don’t know if the current issue pertains to this. Sally.”
Another official, Wesley Byerly, associate dean for research support services, is brought in, and the group decides to meet and discuss the matter in the next few days.
On April 16, Nevins and Potti respond to Perez’s Research Concerns memo.
“We have now decided to go back through each and every dataset that we have posted in relation to various publications to ensure that there are no errors,” Nevins and Potti wrote. “As you might imagine, this is a laborious process that requites quite a lot of checking of data to ensure that what is reported is accurate. But we do believe this is important and in the end will be in everyone’s best interests.”
Had this been done, fraud would have become evident more than two years earlier—in 2008 instead of 2010—and Duke’s clinical trials of the predictor model would have stopped months after they began.
“The response from Potti and Nevins seems quite similar in tone and substance to the responses they sent to Baggerly and Coombes,” said Johns Hopkins biostatistician Rosner. “While they seem to acknowledge some problems, history does not indicate they ever rectified their practice.”
“An Unusual Situation”
With Perez planning to report irregularities in the Potti lab to HHMI, Duke now faces the prospect of the controversy spilling out into the outside world.
On April 22, in a package of letters to HHMI, Buckley, the interim vice dean for medical education, presents the matter as an honest difference of opinion between a medical student and the two world-famous researchers.
“Enclosed please find two letters explaining an unusual situation which has resulted from Brad Perez’s HHMI Fellowship experience here at Duke under the supervision of Dr. Anil Potti and Dr. Joseph Nevins,” Buckley writes. “As outlined in the letters, there appears to be an issue with regards to the methodology used for the research activities that Mr. Perez has been performing in the Potti lab. Because of this situation Mr. Perez feels uncomfortable in pursuing continued research activities in the lab. He has requested and been granted permission to seek out a new research experience in a different lab.
“This is with the full support of his current mentors and the institution. It is important to note that there have been no allegations of scientific misconduct. The mentors and Mr. Perez have reached this decision amicably. The Duke University Medicine administration has looked into this situation and also supports this recommendation.
“It is hoped that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will continue to support Mr. Perez in his efforts to obtain a meaningful and productive medical research experience. It is our belief that even though his current activities have been abbreviated that he has benefited greatly by his experience.”
The Perez letter is brief.
He says that the work in the Potti lab wasn’t done in accordance with his standards of quality in genomic research, that he no longer feels comfortable working at the lab, and that he wishes to have his name removed from all the manuscripts published by the lab.
“I have made my concerns known to the appropriate individuals within Duke University and steps are being taken to evaluate those concerns internally,” he writes. Stripped of erudite discussion and astute analysis, this version of the letter makes him sound like an overly confident young man having a snit.
Nevins and Potti portray the situation as a difference of opinion.
“We recognize that everyone has their own opinions about standards and level of proof and we respect his position on these issues,” they write. “Given our differences on these matters, Brad has determined that his best course would be to find another research opportunity at Duke. While we do regret his decision, we also believe it is likely the appropriate choice and we will do whatever we can to support him in his future endeavors.”
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