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Duke University Wraps Up Misconduct Inquiry

Investigation: School draws ire for not disclosing results of its probe of a faculty biochemist

by Carmen Drahl
December 14, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 51

Duke University has finished its investigation of protein engineer Homme W. Hellinga but has declined to make the results public. Hellinga, a professor at the University's Medical Center, retracted two high-profile papers about computer-aided enzyme design in February 2008, after others were unable to reproduce the results (C&EN May 5, 2008, p. 40). In July 2008, at Hellinga's request, Duke opened an inquiry into the work and Hellinga's actions in connection with the retractions.

Results from the confidential review "have been discussed with Dr. Hellinga and the University has taken appropriate action to address any concerns identified," Michael J. Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations, says in a statement.

Hellinga declined to discuss the case. "The University’s policies and federal law concerning the investigation of any allegation of scientific misconduct provide absolute confidentiality to the participants," he says in a statement.

The federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which conducts oversight reviews of investigations on NIH-funded work such as Hellinga's, did not make a finding of misconduct in the Hellinga case, and consequently any information about the case is confidential, says ORI spokesperson Ann M. Bradley.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which also funded Hellinga's research, notified Duke on December 10 that no further investigation on the case was required on its behalf, says DARPA public affairs officer Eric T. Mazzacone.

"While I am glad that Duke has reached a conclusion in the Hellinga matter, I am disappointed that the findings have been kept secret," says Louis Metzger, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who as a Duke graduate student delivered a petition requesting an investigation of Hellinga. "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."


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