Huge retractions in the medical literature are, thankfully, pretty rare. In fact, they’re rare enough that I think I know of most of the big players in that area. My favorite is, of course, the infamous MMR vaccine and autism Lancet paper. But another pretty well known researcher who had many papers retracted is Anil Potti:
Chemotherapy can be a tough road for people with cancer, often debilitating and even dangerous. Which is why five years ago, when Duke University announced that it had an advanced, experimental treatment that would match chemotherapy to a patient’s own genetic makeup, it was hailed as the holy grail of cancer care. The scientist behind the discovery was Dr. Anil Potti, and soon Dr. Potti became the face of the future of cancer treatment at Duke, offering patients a better chance even with advanced disease. However, when other scientists set out to verify the results, they found many problems and errors. What our 60 Minutes investigation reveals is that Duke’s so-called breakthrough treatment wasn’t just a failure — it may end up being one of the biggest medical research frauds ever.
What’s new is that it turns out that there was a whistleblower in 2008, even though Duke University claimed there wasn’t one to an IOM panel later. the whistleblower was a medical student named Bradford Perez:
According to the newsletter’s 9 January issue, as the trials were starting in 2008, a medical student in Potti’s lab named Bradford Perez raised concerns about the statistical analyses in Potti’s papers in e-mails and a memo to Duke officials. Perez noted that he had removed himself as co-author of several of Potti’s papers and asked to change labs at the risk of harming his career. “In raising these concerns, I have nothing to gain and much to lose,” he wrote in the memo.
Potti’s mentor, cancer geneticist Joseph Nevins, pleaded with Perez not to send a letter about his concerns to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which was supporting him, because it would trigger an investigation at Duke, according to a deposition cited in court documents. Perez is now a resident at Duke.
It appears that there were many things that went wrong with both the conduct of research in these trials, and the handling of the investigation by Duke. But one thing that certainly wasn’t wrong was the moral compass of Dr. Perez. It couldn’t have been easy for a medical student to go out on a limb like that, especially since Potti must have been a huge deal at Duke at the time. Perez deserves our praise and some recognition. If TIE had an award for bravery, he’d be on my short list. If I could find him on twitter, I’d tell him so personally.