Duke University To Pay $112M To Settle Research Fraud Allegations

Mar 25, 2019

Stormy skies over Duke University's west campus.
Credit Duke Photography

Duke University will pay $112.5 million to settle allegations that university officials knew about fraudulent research in one of its labs and actively concealed the fraud in order to win federal research grants.

A whistleblower brought a False Claims Act case against the university, alleging the faked research data led to more than $200 million in research grants from the National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies, to Duke and other institutions.

"This is a difficult moment for Duke," university officials wrote in an email to faculty, staff, and employees obtained by Medscape Medical News. "This case demonstrates the devastating impact of research fraud and reinforces the need for all of us to have a focused commitment on promoting research integrity and accountability."

The whistleblower is Joseph Thomas, a biologist who worked in the Duke lab and reported the alleged research fraud. He will receive 30% of the $112.5 million settlement. He was represented by his brother, John Thomas of Healy Hafemann Magee in Virginia.

"The impact of the research misconduct in this case was unprecedented. While the use of the False Claims Act in the scientific grant context is somewhat unusual, I think this demonstrates the versatility of this whistleblower statute to remedy fraud of all kinds. We hope this case will have a positive impact across the research enterprise," John Thomas said in an interview after a judge approved the settlement.

Former Duke researcher Erin Potts-Kant conducted the alleged fraud from 2006 to 2013. She was fired for embezzling money from the university, which happened during the same period, according to Duke. After her firing, her research was scrutinized, which led to the retractions of 17 scientific papers, according to RetractionWatch.

This is not the first high profile research fraud case at Duke University. In 2015, Duke settled claims surrounding bunk science from Anil Potti. He claimed to have made an incredible cancer treatment breakthrough and the university started clinical trials and enrolled cancer patients based on the research. But the science was later found to have been faked and patients enrolled in the clinical trial died. That settlement, brought by the families of patients in the trial, was not made public.

Citing concerns over how it has handled research fraud, the NIH last year imposed stricter rules on Duke University researchers, according to Science.