Duke scientist placed on leave over Rhodes Scholar claim

DURHAM — A well-regarded Duke cancer researcher has been placed on leave and at least temporarily denied access to a research grant while the university looks into whether he falsely claimed to be a Rhodes Scholar on applications for federal funding.

A report in The Cancer Letter, a newsletter that covers cancer research issues, says Duke cancer genomics researcher Anil Potti claimed to have won the prestigious scholarship but did not.

"Duke is aware of the allegations raised in the article regarding Dr. Potti and has instituted a formal internal investigation," Duke spokesman Douglas Stokke said Friday afternoon. "Dr. Potti has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation."

Potti is an associate professor in Duke's medicine department. He and his research colleagues have done work on the genetic patterns of lung cancer tumors and have brought in more than $1 million in federal money for Duke.

He is receiving more than $600,000 through two federal cancer research grants from the National Institutes of Health. He is also in the middle of a five-year lung cancer study for which he is receiving $729,000 from the American Cancer Society, according to that organization's database.

On Friday, the American Cancer Society suspended payments to Potti's grant pending its own investigation.

"We are profoundly concerned to learn that a Duke University researcher made claims about his credentials in applications to the American Cancer Society and others that may not be true," said Otis W. Brawley, the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer.

It isn't clear whether a false biographical claim would put a federal research grant in jeopardy. NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky would say only that "it is NIH policy to neither confirm nor deny that a review has been initiated or is under way."

Potti could not be reached Friday.

According to the Cancer Letter report, Potti claimed on various applications to the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society to have won a Rhodes scholarship in Australia. On one application, he claimed to have won the Rhodes in 1995. On another, it was 1996, according to the report.

On other, later bios, he drops the Rhodes claim, it stated.

The Rhodes Trust does fund 11 scholarships each year for Australian students to study at Oxford University in England. But Potti's name is not on the list of Rhodes winners on the scholarship trust's website.

According to the published Cancer Letter report, Potti responded to that newsletter's questions with an e-mail in which he said he was a Rhodes nominee. He did not respond to subsequent questions, according to the report.

If he did falsify his biography, Potti may have committed a crime. The federal False Claims Act prohibits, among other things, falsifying applications in order to receive grant funding.

"It is most certainly unethical," said Peg Vigiolto, UNC-Chapel Hill's associate vice chancellor for research, speaking generally and not about Potti specifically. "And it would most certainly initiate all sorts of scientific integrity questions."

The Rhodes is among the world's most prestigious awards. Each year, 82 college students from around the world are selected for postgraduate study at Oxford University in England.

Some at Duke apparently thought Potti had, in fact, won a Rhodes scholarship. A 2007 "New Faculty Profile" in a Duke publication refers to Potti as a Rhodes Scholar in a five-paragraph blurb describing the scientist's work.

According to his Duke bio, Potti received his medical degree from Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. He did his residency at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and came to Duke in 2003 for a hematology/oncology fellowship.

Potti has been a visible presence at Duke. His work has been featured in university press releases, and he has provided cancer expertise to the V Foundation for Cancer Research.