Bernstein, Nina. "Charges of Research Fraud Arise at a Cornell AIDS Lab," New York Times,
26 September 1998, pp. 1, B6.
Cornell University officials say they are investigating allegations of scientific misconduct against
the head of one of the university's largest immunology and AlDS-related research labs, who is a
recipient of more than $2 million in Federal money.
The researcher, Dr. John L. Ho, has been accused by members of his lab in New York City of
ordering subordinates to falsify data in one research grant application; of knowingly using false
claims to obtain another Federal grant for $1.5 million; of publishing a paper based on falsified
experiments, and of threatening or punishing members of the lab who discovered damaging
Although university officials would provide few details, the basis for the allegations was pieced
together from interviews with seven current and former lab employees, three of whom would
speak only on the condition of anonymity and provided most of the information, including
Dr. Ho 48, an associate professor of medicine and microbiology at the Joan and Sanford Weill
Medical College and Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University, declined to
comment on any charges saying, "My guilt or innocence has to be evaluated in the context of the
whole current investigation." Asked if he was guilty of scientific misconduct, he replied, "I don't
believe I have intentionally conducted scientific misconduct."
Dr. Ho is not related to the better-known AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho, who directs the Aaron
Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York. Though Dr. John Ho has not achieved renown as
an AIDS researcher, he is viewed by peers as an up-and-coming immunologist. He sits on
research peer review committees of the American Heart Association and the National Institutes
of Health, and his collaboration in a 10-year, $5 million Federal grant to study AIDS in Haiti
gives him a role in the search for an H.l.V. vaccine.
The research projects at issue involve test-tube experiments to determine how the immune
system interacts with various microbes, including those of H.I.V., tuberculosis and parasitic
diseases. It is peripheral to research seeking a cure for AIDS.
Dr. David Hajjar, the dean of the graduate school, said the university's inquiry began in
mid-August, when allegations made by one member of Dr. Ho's lab reached top officials. Dr.
Dominic Falcone, an associate professor of pathology appointed by the dean to conduct a 60-day
inquiry, said in an interview that so far, some, but not all, of the allegations had been supported
by other people.
Questions about the integrity of Dr. Ho's research erupted during the last 19 months, lab
members said. Also at issue in the inquiry, officials said, is the disappearance of about 60 vials of
human DNA fragments known as plasmids, most of them encoded with H.I.V. proteins for
experimentation. The plasmids vanished from a freezer in late December, heightening what
several researchers described as an atmosphere of fear and distrust in Dr. Ho's lab, which covers
five rooms on the fourth floor of the New York Hospital medical complex at York Avenue and
69th Street in Manhattan. University officials said the plasmids had not been found, but stressed
that they were not dangerous.
"Cornell is not interested in anything but getting to the bottom of it," Dr. Hajjar said.
After Dr. Falcone reports on his inquiry, Dr. Hajjar, following university policy, will decide if the
allegations are "sufficiently substantive" to open a formal investigation by a three-member
committee, which would require notification of the National Institutes of Health.
There is growing concern in the scientific community that the incentives to commit fraud have
intensified as competition has increased among researchers to win grant money and publish
findings. But since research inevitably involves mistakes, proving intent to mislead has become
the key to a formal finding of scientific misconduct.
Allegations as serious as those in the Cornell case are rare, said Chris Pascal, the acting director
of the Federal Office of Research Integrity, which has the power to prevent researchers from
receiving Federal money if they are found to have committed fraud. He said the office, which is
part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is notified each year of 35 to 40
investigations by the 3,000 institutions that receive Federal research grants, some involving
single instances of plagiarism. It makes about 15 findings of misconduct annually, Mr. Pascal
Dr. Ho's success in winning money from the National Institutes of Health began in the
mid-1990s, about half a dozen years after he joined the Cornell faculty from Tufts
University-New England Medical Center in Boston. Born in Canton, he is a graduate of the State
University of New York at Stony Brook and was trained as a doctor at New York University
Medical Center and Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.
Trouble in Dr. Ho's lab surfaced in February 1997, after David Kaufman, a young medical and
Ph.D. student, conducted a promising experiment with blood samples from four people.
According to a detailed account provided by one lab researcher and confirmed by another, Dr. Ho
told Mr. Kaufman to create a graph in support of a grant application that would present the
results of the four samples as averages from the blood of 40 people. In what more experienced
members of the lab described as an act of courage unusual in their hierarchical world, Mr.
Kaufman refused, telling Dr. Ho that such a graph would be fraudulent.
Later, the researchers said, Dr. Ho ordered Miguel Camargo, a lab technician, to create the same
graph. When Mt. Kaufman saw the graph on Mr. Camargo's computer he tried but failed to
persuade the technician to defy Dr. Ho, the researchers said.
According to a lab member familiar with the incident, Dr. Ho assured Mr. Camargo that such
things were done in grant applications all the time, and threatened retaliation if he made trouble.
"We're not aware that it's happening all the time, it shouldn't be happening all the time, and we
don't get allegations like that and dismiss them," Mr. Pascal of the Office of Research Integrity
said, when told of the accusation.
Mr. Camargo declined to comment. Mr. Kaufman, who left Dr. Ho's lab late last year, refused to
answer specific questions, saying: "I'm a graduate student at Cornell. It wouldn't be good to
discuss this with you." But he added: "I absolutely don't condone any sort of scientific
misconduct like that. I personally don't like to be involved in the politics of these situations."
A second round of questions about Dr. Ho's work surfaced in the lab in spring 1997, when
Ricardo Caminha, a physician from Brazil working on his Ph.D. thesis, tried and failed to
reproduce results that Dr. Ho had described in a paper being prepared for publication. The paper,
which Dr. Ho and others submitted for publication anyway, aimed to show the mechanism by
which the human immune system overcomes tuberculosis, pointing to novel treatment strategies.
But when Dr. Caminha checked old lab data books, two of his former colleagues said, he
discovered that streptomycin, an antibiotic used against TB, had been added to the culture
medium in the experiments. They said that after Dr. Caminha confronted Dr. Ho, he was cut
from the project.
When this account was related to Dr. Caminha in Rio de Janeiro yesterday, he said: "I can't talk
to you. I can't confirm or deny anything about this investigation."
Sadhana Chitale, a postdoctoral fellow who was a co-author of the paper, said she had worked on
a different aspect of the research and could not comment on the streptomycin. She went on to
say, "I was told there was an oversight, that it was added by mistake."
She said, "I tried to keep myself distant" from the conflicts in the lab end added: "I have a job to
keep. I do whatever is assigned to me."
By fall 1997, a third controversy had erupted in the lab, this one over the $1.5 million Federal
research grant that Dr. Ho had won in 1996 to study an unusual molecule known as LPG, which
other scientists have shown is used by the parasitic disease leishmaniasis to thwart the body's
In his grant application, Dr. Ho said that in test-tube experiments he had found an interesting
property of LPG: it reduced the level of H.I.V., while not inhibiting the proliferation of healthy
cells. At least two researchers in the lab, Magda Carvalho and Ana Teresa Nogueira Dumans,
built LPG experiments based on this crucial claim.
But lab members said that when Ms. Dumans gathered the lab's past studies on LPG, she
discovered test results in February 1995 demonstrating that contrary to Dr. Ho's 1996 grant
application, LPG did inhibit cell proliferation.
Dr. Ho's longtime lab technician, Howard Doo, confirmed in a telephone interview that he had
performed LPG tests in 1994 and 1995 that showed the molecule blocked cell growth, and had
turned over all his results to Dr. Ho. Two other researchers said that when Ms. Dumans
confronted Dr. Ho about this, he denied seeing his technician's data before writing the grant.
Mr. Doo, who worked in the lab for six years and left this spring, said he could not remember the
events well and was unaware of any misconduct. He added, "I'm a friend of Dr. Ho." Ms.
Dumans did not return calls, and Dr. Carvalho declined to comment.
The disappearance of the plasmids in December 1997 distressed the lab again, researchers said.
Sabotage and theft were possible explanations discussed in the aftermath, Mr. Doo said. Ms.
Chitale called the disappearance "scary."
Dr. Ho took the unusual step of placing a lock on the lab freezer, retained the key himself and
doled out material for experiments bit by bit.
According to an account confirmed by three researchers, one day in May Ms. Dumans and Mr.
Caminha were left without access to the supplies in the freezer they needed to keep lab
experiments from ruin. After trying to reach Dr. Ho at home, they opened the freezer by
unscrewing the hinges. Both were reprimanded by Dr. Ho over the incident, two researchers said,
and left soon afterward.
Dr. Ho then tried to defuse criticism at a session for his lab's researchers. Two people who
attended said Dr. Ho tried to demonstrate his motivation as a researcher by showing slides of
dying children in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand where he had worked as medical
coordinator early in his career.
But the session did not quell complaints. In late June, as the allegations filtered out, Dr. Warren
D. Johnson, chief of the Division of International Medicine and Infectious Diseases and Dr. Ho's
supervisor, was asked to look into the controversy, said Paul F. Macielak, a Cornell spokesman.
Dr. Johnson, who is principal investigator in the same 10-year AIDS study on which Dr. Ho is
working, declined to comment. But others said that after a brief review, Dr. Johnson assembled
the lab members and told them there was no problem.
Six weeks later, after a researcher pressed the issue with university officials, the present inquiry