Duke Med Center Plagued by More Scientific Controversy
Unbeknownst to many Duke alumni, more controversy rocks the university’s medical center as some kind of “resolution” was reached in the 2-year investigation of a biochemistry professor, Homme Hellinga. Just last month, Duke physician and scientist Anil Potti resigned after a protracted investigation of serious resume padding and, more important, allegations of scientific fraud. The latest news on Hellinga, who (as far as I know) had no relationship to Potti, comes by way of the school’s newspaper, the Duke Chronicle, which also reported yesterday that the university has not disclosed the actual outcome of its investigation.
In a pass-the-buck response for comment, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations wrote in an e-mail to the paper that the investigation’s outcome was confidential. If the World Wide Web is any indication, Dr. Hellinga’s faculty web page is still up and running—giving the impression that the biochemist, a computational designer of synthetic proteins, is still on staff. Hellinga also declined to respond in detail to the school paper, saying, “[I]t 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.” Hellinga’s statement, of course, suggests that no there was no finding of research misconduct.
The background on Hellinga is that, in 2008, he retracted papers in Science and the Journal of Molecular Biology on the basis of their irreproducible results. As a consequence, Hellinga accused his former graduate student Mary Dwyer, who had performed most of the published work, of scientific misconduct. However, an internal investigation of Dwyer by Duke led to a clearing of the charges against her. (According to a 2008 Nature news report, the misleading findings of Hellinga et al were due to their erroneous reliance on a certain protein purification method. In other words, the results were not deliberately falsified but were, instead, the result of “innocent” error. Dwyer, understandably traumatized, is now evidently a postdoc in a pharmacology lab at Duke.)
Then, several months after Dwyer was cleared, the university began an investigation of Hellinga. Last year, data in 2 other papers that were coauthored by Hellinga, 1 in Nature and another in PNAS, were called into question. (Dwyer was also coauthor on the Nature article.) The concern: That Hellinga’s results in these papers could not be reproduced or were very difficult to replicate—by Hellinga’s former postdocs no less. (A PubMed search reveals that the articles have not been retracted.)
The subtextual upshot of the entire affair: That Hellinga’s questionable protein-design work is not the result of outright fraud but, rather, a consequence of either human error or nuances in his scientific methods. In contradistinction to the case of Anil Potti, Hellinga’s work may be (may be) bogus, but not—importantly—on the basis of deception. There is a big difference between charlatanism and simply being wrong.
Photo of Homme Hellinga, who is a man and not, despite appearances, my former PE teacher.