Two years ago today, Dr. Anil Potti resigned in disgrace from the University faculty. Once the poster boy of Duke Medicine, pictured in on-line videos and other promotions, Potti had faked his resume, including a Rhodes Scholarship and other phony credentials. Worse, he had faked his research, which involved recruiting critically ill cancer patients who were reassured that he had found the key to their dramatically successful treatment.
We regret having to report that the same questions that arose two years ago still haunt us today :
1) Did Potti act alone in his fraud, or were other researchers in his lab aware? If they were not aware, were they asleep? Those people continue their scientific inquiry with the imprimatur of Duke University.
We now know that one graduate student has stepped forward and spoken to at least one journalist, and provided information that is not yet public. If this information proves true, it is a smoking gun with lots of smoke coming out of the barrel. Lots.
2) Should Potti be allowed to practice medicine, particularly since he has stated he has received no psychiatric help? We discuss this more fully below.
3) As we outline below, the University has shown insufficient concern and compassion for the patients who were victimized. We are still bounced between two theories:
– That Potti, even though he promised more, gave patients treatment they might have gotten anyway under established protocols, so his experiments did not do any harm. .
– That Potti harmed his patients and exposed them to risks, often giving them the precise drugs that his own research was showing would be least effective.
4) On a more optimistic note, we feel that Duke Medicine has done a very good job in giving the media access to its leadership to ask probing questions.
Duke Medicine has also done a fine job of admitting mistakes it made along the way. For example, not turning over to an internal investigation information it received from concerned researchers in Texas who were trying to duplicate Potti’s results, the test of their validity.
A second example was the flat-out admission that Duke University should not have allowed Anil Potti to do clinical trials of his theories.
It was refreshing at Duke to see administrators stand up and be transparent and accountable when they were wrong.
5) Duke Medicine has also done a good job in plugging holes in its systems that let Potti change raw data that had been entered into computers — one assumption about how this was pulled off — without ever leaving an electronic signature that he had done this.
The next few paragraphs are primarily for our many new readers. Loyal Readers from two years ago may want to telescope through this section of our report.
“Trust me.” Those words created a chilling echo when broadcast on a 60 Minutes segment that exposed what could be “one of the biggest medical frauds in history.”
Potti was engaged in genome research — and claimed to have discovered that locked in the DNA of every person and every cancer, there was information which, when sorted out and analyzed, would reveal precisely which drugs would attack the specific cancer plaguing the patient. Presently, that’s a hit or miss proposition with powerful chemotherapy drugs that may or may not work, all the while consuming precious time as the cancer advances, not to mention the horrible and debilitating side effects.
Potti developed a test that would do the sorting and analyzing, and he and Duke University hoped to capitalize on the discovery by licensing the test. One estimate is that there would be 600,000 tests in the United States alone every year — at a cost of $1,000 plus for each one.
In fact, Potti’s research was worthless. So bad that the American Cancer Society demanded and got its money back from Duke University. So bad that a dozen of the most important medical journals have retracted his articles or heavily edited them.
So what about the key people caught in this drama.
POTTI’S PATIENTS -
11 have settled malpractice claims against him for at least $75,000 each. And who knows if anyone settled for less.
The North Carolina Medical Board has a threshold of $75,000 before publicizing the verdict without the plaintiff’s name. And it doesn’t reveal how much the verdict was.
There is no way of knowing if Potti paid this personally (doubtful) or if Duke University as his employer and insurer got zonked (count on it.)
There are two lawsuits pending. One has multiple plaintiffs, the other one plaintiff. In our judgment, Duke has worked these people over the coals; rather than being nice and kind, the university has unleashed defense lawyers who have bashed them in every way legally possible. We have more information; we cannot post it yet. (On the left, Potti patient the late Julie Jacobs and her husband Walter.)
We are still uncertain how many patients Potti had in his so-called clinical trials, which are experiments on human beings. There seems to have been somewhere between 112 and 126 when Potti was shown to be a fraud and his trials cancelled. That does not count those who died in his hands, nor those who may have left or completed his treatment.
Moreover, it does not count people who underwent painful and invasive tests to determine if they were good candidates for Potti’s research. We have tried to get the total of that group of people. Tried unsuccessfully. There is some evidence that this group may be in the thousands.
Everyone in a clinical trial gives “informed consent” for the experiments. In this case, Potti deceived them into entering.
Make no mistake. Potti has never apologized, nor expressed any remorse, nor any concern that we have heard for his patients. We know, too, that he has never undergone any psychological testing to determine why his once promising career ended in ruins; we know that from his certification that he has never had treatment, in his application to practice in South Carolina.
Rather, Potti has flooded the internet with positive “news stories” about himself, hiring an image consultant to do so. In many instances he played on his Duke years; more recently, his emphasis of Duke has stopped, but we cannot find out if this was because Duke slapped him legally. As it should.
Potti found his first post-Duke work in a cancer clinic in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina area. The doctor in charge (pictured on left) of this group practice later insisted he knew little about Potti — other than effusive recommendations from some Duke colleagues. But after the 60 Minutes expose turned up the heat on the clinic, Potti was let go.
He next landed a job with a Durham company that provides medical care at senior citizen centers, and also makes house calls. Again, the doctor in charge said he never heard of Potti, who was canned immediately when facts became known. Potti had trailed one of their doctors for three days, but never saw a patient on his own.
Potti then returned to North Dakota, where he completed his medical training as a resident. He got another job in a cancer clinic. The doctor in charge says Potti merely got bad publicity, and whatever happened was Duke’s fault. And besides, the controversy is all over.
Potti also sees patients in Minnesota, at a branch office.
This means Potti is licensed to practice medicine in five states: NC, SC, ND, MN, and for some reason that we do not know, Missouri. We consider it disgraceful that this man has either renewed or obtained these medical licenses with no inquiry into why his mental elevator was not stopping on all floors.
We are frustrated.
The Institute of Medicine, which we initially understood was to provide an “unfettered” probe, turned instead away from Potti to larger questions about scientific inquiry. All of those larger questions had validity — but so does a specific look at Potti.
There is a top secret (under federal law) research misconduct investigation underway. Or maybe it has been completed. No one knows.
No one even knows if Potti alone is under investigation, or if people who worked with him were caught in his web. Perhaps his mentor, Dr. Joseph Nevins. Perhaps his statistician, Mike West. That does not inspire confidence.
Ultimately, even though all this occurred in the autonomous (or almost autonomous) medical division with its own Chancellor as chief executive, the President of the University bears responsibility.
He has failed us. His only two comments on Potti would be comical if not so serious. In one instance, when it was not yet confirmed if Potti had the Rhodes Scholarship that he claimed, the President stated that Potti’s resume could be true, it could be false, or perhaps there is some “intermediate explanation.”
Look, you either had the Rhodes or you did not. And Potti did not. And Brodhead should have kicked his ass out of here, not placed him on a type of administrative leave with pay.
Our president also said that we would continue to take resumes from prospective faculty at face value. You see, no one had checked on Potti’s claims to a Rhodes Scholarship. And no one is checking now.
There was never any apology from the President. Nor expression of concern to the patients.
And equally as important, never any show of appreciation to the dogged researchers at the M. D. Anderson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas (shown at the left) who were so important in unearthing the truth. These researchers should receive the highest honor of this University for standing up — under a brutal onslaught — for its integrity.
But of course, to present such awards would require class.