Duke University’s Homme Hellinga Scandal: The Untold Story of How Students Risked their Careers to Fight a Cover-Up
Duke University, the school from which I received my Ph.D. in biochemistry, recently agreed to pay $112 million to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit for research misconduct. I found the settlement both unsurprising and underwhelming, a slap on the wrist for a private institution boasting an endowment of ~$8.5 billion. Falsification of publications and grant applications from the laboratory of Duke Medical School Professor William Michael Foster and his technician Erin Potts-Kant was alleged as early as 2013, but resulted in an internal investigation for which Duke buried the results (a common outcome, as I shall relate). Only a lawsuit by former Duke biologist and whistleblower Joseph Thomas, subsequently picked up by the U.S. Department of Justice, shed light on the truth. Damningly, Thomas’s lawsuit alleges a pattern of cover-up and institutional malfeasance that seems to be Duke Medicine’s modus operandi.
In 2010, in what 60 Minutes characterized as “one of the biggest medical frauds ever,” Duke physician-“scientist” Anil Potti’s cancer research on human subjects was brought to public attention. Potti left in disgrace, and Duke eventually settled with the families of deceased patients whose allegedly improper cancer treatments were based on Potti’s bogus science. Starting in 2008, Duke medical student Bradford Perez blew the whistle on Potti’s dangerously fraudulent research. All the while, Potti collaborator “Joseph Nevins — aided by a phalanx of Duke deans — pressured the young man from making a final complaint and reporting the matter [to Potti’s funding agency].”
I can relate to Perez’s experience, because in the same year, unbeknownst to each other, both of us were urging Duke to investigate potential research misconduct. Perez’s bravery was extraordinary because he was acting alone. I was fortunate to act in concert with seventeen of my Duke Biochemistry colleagues, and with the tacit support of some renegade faculty. More than a decade later, and in the context of Duke Medicine’s recent taste of justice, it is time to tell our story. It is also time to call out Nancy Andrews, Dean of Duke Medical School from 2007–17, and a current Director of Novartis, for the scandals which unfolded under her watch, and for her attempts to silence those of us who demanded justice.
When I matriculated into Duke’s graduate program in 2004, I hoped to work for Homme Wytzes Hellinga, then considered a world leader in computer-aided protein design. I was astonished by Hellinga’s ability to re-design (and indeed to create) enzymes and biosensors at whim, using a computer program called DEZYMER. Other laboratories did superb work in this area, including those of David Baker at The University of Washington, and Bill Degrado (now at UCSF), but Hellinga seemed to be the front-runner. In those early years of The War on Terror, Hellinga’s designed biosensors brought in copious research money, and he seemed destined for a run at the forefront of synthetic biology. Imagine my surprise, soon after joining Duke Biochemistry, to be told by Hellinga’s graduate students and postdocs to avoid rotating (“trying out”) in their lab. Hellinga, they said, was “hard to work for,” a task-master who compartmentalized his research group and was prone to micromanaging — if not taking over — his laboratory members’ work. A prescient warning came from James Qiu, one of the most recent students to join Hellinga at that time. The professor, James hinted, was not what he seemed. It was difficult — impossible in James’s hands — to make DEZYMER’s enzyme designs work at the laboratory bench. Given James’s subsequent travails, I feel indebted to him for his candor.
After rotating in the laboratory of Hellinga’s wife, a fellow Duke Biochemistry professor whose personality and laboratory culture I found toxic, I ended up joining the research group of an assistant professor who was later denied tenure for reasons of departmental politics rather than merit. I consequently ended up working for Christian Raetz, in a different area of research than I originally intended. This was to prove fortunate.
Duke’s Biochemistry students were uncommonly collegial, perhaps because many of the faculty did not inspire confidence. Whether it was the professor who frequently kept graduate students for a decade, or the one who routinely had doctoral students quit several years into their thesis projects without completing their degrees, the place was not exactly filled with role models. Two popular, successful young faculty had recently been denied tenure, their laboratories dissolved. Rumors continued to waft from the Hellinga Lab. Students and postdocs spoke darkly about a former Hellinga student crying when her landmark Science paper was published. These were not tears of joy, but tears of despair from being pressured to agree to the publication of data that she didn’t feel were properly controlled. That student was Mary Dwyer, someone who I’d met in passing but didn’t really know, who had since graduated without incident.
In late 2007, that groundbreaking 2004 Science paper was on the verge of retraction. Its withdrawal in early 2008 brought attention to the blog of Austen Heinz, a former undergraduate research volunteer in the Hellinga Lab, and a student to whom I once served as a teaching assistant. Austen, who was to have a brilliant but tragically short scientific career of his own, intimated that this retraction was the tip of an iceberg of malfeasance by Hellinga. Heinz’s blog, since removed, quickly passed among students and faculty, reigniting discussion of the dark rumors surrounding Hellinga. At this point, I was made aware of two facts: that Hellinga had formally accused Mary Dwyer of research misconduct, thereby initiating an investigation in which Duke might revoke her doctorate; that while this investigation was underway, Hellinga systematically denigrated Dwyer in discussions with Duke Biochemistry faculty, including with my mentor, Christian R. H. Raetz. Appalled, Raetz told members of his laboratory. That spring, Duke Medical School formally cleared Dwyer of research misconduct, without examining Hellinga’s potential falsification of results. “Move along, there’s nothing to see here” was the university’s apparent position. With so much of Hellinga’s grant money on the line, it was not in Duke’s interest to look closely at the professor’s potential culpability. Attempts to reproduce the retracted work in other research labs cost time, cost money, and damaged the careers of several scientists. Putting its financial interests above those of science, Duke disregarded the need for a satisfactory explanation of how Hellinga’s retracted work came to be published. A definitive, in-depth account of the scandal was published by Nature, accompanied by a scathing editorial. Duke was unmoved. Letters by luminaries in the field, demanding further explanation, went unanswered by the university. Professor Homme W. Hellinga continued as a James B. Duke Professor of Biochemistry. Some Duke scientists and faculty, including Jane Richardson, Dave Richardson and Michael Prisant, pressed valiantly for an investigation of Hellinga, but most, perhaps concerned about maintaining the pretense of collegiality, or fearful of setting a precedent of opening their laboratory fiefdoms to scrutiny, failed to act.
At this point, in the early summer of 2008, a subset of Duke Biochemistry graduate students considered taking matters into its own hands. If our department’s faculty didn’t collectively have the guts to demand an investigation of Hellinga, then we would. We considered drafting a petition, addressed to the leadership of Duke and its medical school, which invoked the university’s rules for requesting research misconduct investigations. Execution of the plan briefly stalled due to fears of retribution. The asymmetry of power between graduate students and postdocs on one hand, and professors and deans on the other, cannot be overstated. The latter have near absolute authority over the former. There are few and feeble mechanisms for recourse. I did not display bravery in drafting, circulating, and delivering the petition, for the simple reason of feeling, at that juncture, that I had nothing to hope for and therefore nothing to lose. I was depressed, I’d recently had a health scare, my thesis project was proving intractable, my mentor/advisor had been diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer, and I did not expect to finish my graduate studies. If I was to crash and burn, I wanted to depart with a clear conscience, to raise my voice against conduct that I found reprehensible to the point of depravity.
The petition was signed by eighteen of the approximately sixty graduate students in the program. While ~1/3 may not seem impressive, those who know the dangers of confronting tenured faculty and deans will realize that this was an extraordinary response. The signers risked their studies and their livelihoods. The passage of time having placed them beyond Duke’s reach, they can now receive recognition: Craig M. Bartling, Brian O. Ingram, Jeffrey Boyles, Jon Werner-Allen, Kristin E. (Robinson) Hoff, Sandeepa Dey, Stuart Endo-Streeter, Susanne J. Bauman, Tiffany Sabin Winsor, April L. (Mackellar) Troester, Michael T. Forrester, Martha Bomar, Puneet Anand, Melissa A. (Pierce) Asllani, James A. Qiu, Rainbo Hultman, Cheng-Yu Chen (listed in the order of their signatures on the petition). These people did the right thing, they did it quickly, and they did it at significant peril. Even James Qiu, Hellinga’s graduate student and the colleague who first warned me back 2005, grimly subscribed. He was soon to change laboratories and thesis advisors, chased by vindictive, behind-the-scenes criticism from Hellinga (which was recounted to me by my thesis advisor). Although James, after a period of uncertainty, was able to find a new mentor and to complete a new doctoral project, he suffered for the stand that he took. He was the bravest among us that summer.
I hand-delivered copies of the petition to the offices of its recipients on 3 July 2008. One of them, Dean of Duke Medical School Nancy Andrews, received it in person. At the time, I thought that this was a promising start. As I sat in her cavernous office, Andrews assured me that she took the students’ petition “very seriously,” and that she would answer it “soon.” In the ensuing year, none of the petition’s recipients, including Andrews, made a response.
As 2008 became 2009, the fabric of Duke Biochemistry frayed. A multi-year search for a new department chairperson, and for additional tenure-track faculty, degenerated into a sputtering farce. What professor in their right mind would want to take charge of our department in these circumstances? What potential new faculty would want to attach themselves, for a minimum of several pre-tenure years, to a professoriate seemingly unable to self-govern? At conferences, there were as many questions about Homme Hellinga as there were about the research we presented. We were a laughingstock or an object of pity, an example of dysfunction in the ivory tower. Few graduate students involved themselves in 2009’s student recruitment efforts. How could we justify asking recruits to join such a dysfunctional program? Morale within Duke Biochemistry was in the basement.
In mid-2009, almost a year after receiving the students’ petition, Nancy Andrews at last made an answer of sorts. She summoned all of Duke Biochemistry’s graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to a meeting to discuss department morale. Seated in an overstuffed armchair on the stage of our building’s seminar room, two lackeys standing at the steps to either side of her, Andrews looked down on us with a royal serenity. Opening the meeting, she recognized that the past few years had been difficult for our department. Did we know of the plans to repair and upgrade our sagging and fire-damaged building? Were we aware that she was assisting in the search for a new chairperson? What other concerns might she address? The smooth prattle continued. A few soft-ball questions were lobbed at her. Her answers were gracious, saccharine. An awkward silence followed. Shaking with anger, I rose to ask Andrews what she was doing about Hellinga, about the unanswered questions regarding his conduct. What was her answer to the students’ petition? How did she ever expect us to recruit new faculty and new students with scandal hanging over our department? As I spoke, Andrews’s placid face screwed itself into a reptilian rictus, the response of someone long unaccustomed to contradiction. Cutting me off, she said that “these topics aren’t on the agenda.” I noted that no agenda had been communicated; if the Hellinga scandal wasn’t pertinent to department morale, then I didn’t know what was. “Answer my questions,” I demanded. Andrews’s response was to eject me from the meeting. I’m told that it ended shortly thereafter, the dean scurrying from her throne, presumably to the comfort of her deferential staff.
A few days later, Chris Raetz informed me that Andrews had asked him to discipline me. He declined to do so, he told her, because “how my students exercise their freedom of speech is not my concern.” I was fortunate to work for Raetz. If not for his implicit backing and his explicit protection, I am unlikely to have been able to finish my studies at Duke. Nancy Andrews’s attempt to silence me makes her unfit to lead, unfit to hold any position of trust.
Yet maybe the students’ action, aided by a few senior Duke Biochemistry professors who bucked the general spinelessness of their peers, had some effect. At the end of 2010, the university announced that it had concluded an investigation of Homme Hellinga, but “declined to discuss the outcome.” Asked to comment on this, I observed that “by failing to publicly address Hellinga’s scientific and ethical culpability, Duke Medical Center administrators do not inspire confidence in their privileged stewardship of federal research funds, or in their promotion of responsible conduct in research.”
The subsequent Anil Potti and Potts-Kant scandals occurred within Duke Medical School on Nancy Andrews’s watch. In both cases, it is alleged that administrators willfully ignored specific warnings of misconduct. Duke was accused of attempting to silence whistle-blowers. Taken together with the Hellinga experience, such behaviors appear to rise to a level of policy, to a pervasive culture of imperious unaccountability. Indeed, these sordid tales’ protagonists and enablers seem to have suffered lightly, if at all. Homme W. Hellinga is still a James B. Duke Professor of Biochemistry, although his most recent PubMed-indexed paper, from 2017, features his wife as the corresponding author. The less charitable among us might be tempted to wonder if this is an example of “CV synthetase” in action. Yet the man still holds a prestigious job, for life, at one of the world’s great universities.
Nancy Andrews served as Dean of Duke Medical School for a full decade, from 2007–17. In 2015, she was elected to the board of directors of Novartis, the world’s second-largest pharmaceutical company. I was a Novartis scientist at the time. I considered resigning, but decided against it from a feeling of responsibility to my team and to Novartis’ Infectious Diseases franchise. It saddens me that Novartis, a global leader in biomedical research, and a company for which I retain immense respect, keeps someone like Andrews on its board. Its employees and shareholders deserve better.
Christian R. H. Raetz, whose quiet support enabled the Duke Biochemistry students to make their principled stand, died in 2011. I miss him deeply, and I am grateful for the things that he taught me, for the cover he gave me to speak freely.
Following my graduation in 2010, Duke called me annually to ask for donations. After a few years of telling the dismayed phone-bank volunteers that I would consider giving money once Duke fired Hellinga, Andrews, and (then) Duke President Richard Broadhead, I seem to have been taken off their contact list.
Universities desperately need reform at all levels. They are built (in Western societies, at least) upon the detritus of medieval clerical tradition. That departments such as Duke Biochemistry are aggregations of professors’ inviolable fiefdoms (laboratories/research groups) is an echo of an ancient chant. It is time to change the tune. Bold enterprises such as The Minerva Project and Khan Academy are among the sappers undermining ivory towers’ walls. Biotech incubators such as IndieBio, by offering an entrepreneurial alternative to the cursus honorum of traditional academia, help drain universities of their exploited underclasses of graduate students and postdocs. Some institutes, such as St. Jude Childrens’ Research Hospital, have experimented with a form of conditional tenure: researchers must justify their position every ~10 years. That’s long enough to outlast a funding drought or an unfavorable political environment. I’d like to see it implemented elsewhere.
We need to change how research scientists are incentivized. When grants are based almost solely on proposing “novel” as opposed to “derivative” research, there’s a rush for scientists to be “first.” Naturally, this comes at the cost of omitted control experiments, skewed interpretation of data, and other problems which distort the creation of reproducible findings. I suspect that sloppiness and wishful thinking are as prevalent as purposeful misconduct. The growing practice of “pre-publishing” draft papers electronically, before submitting them to peer-reviewed journals, is a promising start to addressing this issue. Yet it is not enough. We must find ways to reward scientists who repeat others’ work as part of their own, and who take the time to build and refine the detailed (if unglamorous) protocols on which solid science is erected. Lest readers think that research reproducibility is a problem that only affects academia, I point to the deluge of government and industrial money that is wasted on projects based on faulty underlying research. It is ok to be wrong. One must just be honest about it.
A culture lionizing “heroic science” is a fertilizer in which many weeds germinate. The belief that science is a zero-sum game related to priority (as discussed above) is both common and dangerous. It raises the lone, “misunderstood,” “brilliant” researcher above the heads of her peers. This fuels the rise of people like Elizabeth Holmes and Homme Hellinga, and it explains the behavior of any number of unethical “lone wolf” scientists. In the biotech startup world, it is a cause of founder madness, that toxic bane of Silicon Valley. In reality, science is a team effort. Most major advances require work spanning generations, involving hundreds or thousands of people. It is not only the Nobel Laureates (almost always professors) who deserve a share of the prizes, but the armies of students, postdocs, and technicians whose insights and toil fashions each great scientific achievement. There is an urgent need to change the narrative of “heroic” individualistic science to one in which we acknowledge that science is best pursued as a collective, non-zero-sum endeavor.