Duke Admits to Falsified Research Data in Response to Whistleblower Lawsuit

In-house investigators at Duke University believe a former lab tech falsified or fabricated data that went into 29 medical research reports, lawyers for the university say in their answer to a federal whistleblower lawsuit against it.

Duke’s admissions concern the work of Erin Potts-Kant, and a probe it began in 2013 when she was implicated in an otherwise-unrelated embezzlement. The lawsuit, from former lab analyst Joseph Thomas, contends Duke and some of its professors used the phony data to fraudulently obtain federal research grants. He also alleges they ignored warning signs about Potts-Kants’ work, and tried to cover up the fraud.

The university’s lawyers have tried to get the case dismissed, but in April, a federal judge said it can go ahead. The latest filings thus represent Duke’s first answer to the substance of Thomas’ allegations.

Up front, it said Potts-Kant told a Duke investigating committee that she’d faked data that wound up being “included in various publications and grant applications.”

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The committee reviewed at least 36 research reports, and in many cases found that she’d tinkered with data before sending it along other investigators. In a few, she simply made things up, Duke said.

Potts-Kant worked in a School of Medicine lab led by Michael Foster, a now-retired pulmonologist. She operated a machine researchers use to gauge the lung function of mice in projects seeking insight on human respiratory ailments like asthma.

As it happened, the lab was a “core” facility that professors from across Duke and from other Triangle universities relied on for measurements. Thomas contends that pretty much all the lab work Potts-Kant did in her eight years at Duke was bogus, and that it compromised grants worth $112.8 million to Duke and a further $120.9 million to institutions like UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University.

His lawsuit invokes the federal False Claims Act, which a whistleblower can use to alert prosecutors to a potential fraud and, if the case is successful, receive a reward for having spoken up. Lawsuit targets are at risk of getting hit with a damages award up to three times the size of the alleged fraud.

Previous filings in the Duke case indicate that federal prosecutors are also investigating, and that they and Duke officials have discussed a potential out-of-court settlement.

While it concedes the falsification of data, Duke denies that it engaged in any sort of cover-up. But it admitted that it gave the federal government progress reports on the research program and a grant-extension application for the lab, using some of the data turned in by Potts-Kant after her work was already under review.

The university also denies knowing whether or not it’s true that there were warning signs about Potts-Kant that may have surfaced early this decade, when Thomas contends a Johns Hopkins University researcher questioned a paper she’d co-authored and a professor at Duke asked that she be kept in the dark about what one of his experiments was driving at.

Meanwhile, Potts-Kant and Foster also submitted answers to the lawsuit. Neither admitted that any of the research papers Thomas’ lawsuit has singled out included phony data.

In most cases, they said they don’t know enough to form an opinion one way or another. But Potts-Kant specifically denied that she hadn’t actually performed experiments for two papers that Duke said included falsified data.

Foster denied allegations of falsified or fabricated data covering two papers, and also denied an allegation that Potts-Kant didn’t do an experiment for a third. One of those denials covers a paper Duke believes included falsified data; the other two address allegations the university isn’t sure about for one reason or another.

Potts-Kant admitted that she’d “generated experiment data that was altered,” and that “to the extent she altered” it, “she knew the altered experiment data was false,” according to the answer filed on her behalf by Chapel Hill-based lawyer Amos Tyndall.

But she “denies she had any knowledge, intent or control” over its use, Tyndall’s filing said.

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