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Whistleblower Lawsuit Alleges Duke University Scientific Fraud

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A whistleblower lawsuit brought against Duke University by a former Duke researcher accuses other former researchers of falsifying data to reap government grants totaling more than $200M.

The suit, by Joseph M. Thomas, was brought on behalf of the U.S. government under the False Claims Act, a federal law used to combat fraud against government agencies. The federal suit names Duke University, Duke University Health System as well as a retired Duke Pulmonologist, William Foster and former researcher, Erin Potts-Kant.

The lawsuit contends that data was fabricated or falsified by Potts-Kant working under direction of Foster in a lab that conducted research on respiratory function and illnesses. The suit alleges that, since 2006, scientists relied on bad data to publish papers as well as seek grants from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies.

“Defendants have abused the public trust,” the lawsuit said. “They have engaged in systematic research misconduct and fraud while failing to comply with the terns, conditions and assurances of their grant awards.”

In 2013 Potts-Kant was accused of embezzling from the university. This sparked an internal review of all her findings. She was eventually convicted but the lawsuit alleges the university and Foster had been turning a blind eye – for years – to  warnings that Potts-Kant was allegedly participating in research misconduct.

The lawsuit further contends Duke not only minimized but hid the extent of wrongdoing by Potts-Kant after the fact.

The suit, filed in November 2015 in U.S. District Court in Virginia was recently unsealed in court. Under the False Claims Act, the university might be liable for triple damages to the government along with additional fines.

This is not the first time a Duke researcher has been accused of misconduct. Dr. Anil Potti, a former cancer researcher at the university, falsified results published in prestigious scientific journals in a 2010 scandal.