A high-profile principal investigator in oncology at Duke University has been placed on administrative leave while the university investigates whether he lied about Rhodes Scholar status on several grant applications. The university has also suspended patient enrollment in three trials he was involved in.
Word got out that Anil Potti, associate professor in the department of medicine and Duke’s Institute for Genomic Sciences and Policy, may not have been telling the truth on his resume when the oncology-research publication The Cancer Letter questioned his credentials in its July 16 issue. The piece quoted a spokesman from the Rhodes Trust confirming that Potti did not in fact at any point win a Rhodes scholarship.
Potti had claimed such credentials in his application to the American Cancer Society when trying to land a $729,000 grant, which he subsequently won. The ACS has suspended payments to Potti while Duke’s investigation is under way.
Duke is not commenting on the situation, but did tell The News & Observer soon after the news broke that the university was looking into whether Potti falsely claimed on a federal grant application that he had won a Rhodes scholarship.
“Situations like this are very, very rare, but they are increasing,” said Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “Competition and pressure to do well, get money, publish and even what it takes to get tenure and be promoted is increasing in these hard financial times. You see things like bolstering your CV, shaving the data, taking the least publishable units of a paper and putting them out there, and people piling onto each other’s papers. The very competitive environment drives this behavior.”
In addition to the credentials problem, concerns are being raised about the validity of some of the research Potti conducted. The editor of the British journal, Lancet Oncology, issued an “expression of concern” on July 23, citing a December 2007 study it published from Potti and other researchers. The article described gene patterns that might help predict a breast cancer patient’s response to chemotherapy. The models were developed by Potti and Joseph Nevins, also of Duke.
Lancet Oncology editor David Collingridge said in his online commentary that representatives of the 15 European co-authors of the article had contacted the journal to express “grave concerns about the validity of their report in light of evolving events.” It turned out that statisticians at the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center had questioned methods used in the study and were unable to reproduce the findings, the co-authors said. The Duke team had been responsible for the paper’s statistical analyses.
“A large group of scientists” also wrote to National Cancer Institute Director Harold Varmus, expressing concern about the validity of methods involved, and asked that three ongoing clinical trials be suspended until an independent review could be done, Collingridge wrote.
Potti, according to Duke’s web site, got his M.D. degree from Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. After completing an internal medicine residency and fellowship training in hematology and medical oncology, he was a fellow in Nevins’ laboratory at Duke where he was involved in peripheral blood profiling and the development of genomic strategies to improve prognosis and treatment, with specific relevance to lung cancer.
Caplan predicts Potti won’t be at Duke for much longer. “I think they have no choice, and will have to penalize him, which is probably going to mean no promotion and he’ll wind up with some sort of censure and discipline in his record,” said Caplan. “His career isn’t over, but it will stall, and he’ll head off in a direction far from Duke.”