Potti scandal: Duke caves, to appoint outside investigators.

Fact Checker here. Thank you Chronicle for staying atop this scandal even though the paper is on vacation. Good work.

✔The headline this afternoon is that Duke caved.

After toughing it out as The Cancer Letter carried major disclosures on May 14, June 18 and July 19; as the leading British medical journal Lancet expressed no confidence in an article by Potti that it had published; and as a Who's Who in the genome community world-wide demanded action, Duke has finally bowed and is turning to an outside authority to investigate the science in this sordid mess. More about this in a moment.

As for Potti's credentials, that mechanical job of seeing if he is all he claimed to be falls internally to Provost Lange. There's no mention of Dr. Michael Cuffe, vice dean for medical affairs who last week was handling this, and who predicted an outcome by tomorrow. Fact Checker is told one reason for the delay is the need for an intense review of one of Potti's most basic claims: that he has an MD degree from a school in India. And the reason Cuffe has fallen out of sight is that he signed off on a Duke review of Potti's work in January and he may well be in the vortex of the storm.

Still, Duke certainly knows the Rhodes Trust has stated Potti never held one of its coveted Rhodes Scholarships. Duke surely knows that Potti claimed that at the same time as the Rhodes, he was serving a fellowship at a Australian university that does not exist. Duke surely knows the professor who allegedly mentored the fellowship says he had not even heard of Potti.

These are not reasons for suspension, which is Potti's current status.

They are reasons for immediate dismissal, and on Tuesday rumors circulated that this morning Duke was going to do just that. Did the university backpedal? What happened behind the closed doors of Allen Building and in the executive corridor at Duke Health?

Just as Cuffe is not mentioned, Fact Checker is scratching and asking where is Brodhead, given brief passing mention by the Provost this morning. One source says there is determination to keep his profile low, particularly in light of his 0-2 record in handling the last two crises. This includes the financial meltdown which drew two landmark Chronicle editorials last semester blistering him for his lack of leadership. And it includes the hoax by a prostitute and prosecutor that enmeshed the lacrosse team, which Brodhead handled so poorly that he himself stepped forward to apologize.

It's a risky strategy, for it points anew to lack of leadership by Brodhead. Still, the source said, Duke prefers the risk to another apology.

Words quoted in the Chronicle story are relevant here: "It could have been the problem of a rogue researcher based on silence—now it's the problem of the rogue researcher and the administrators that protected him,” Goldberg said. "This is a question of the administration. They are taking a problem that they could have solved, and turning it into a problem that is structural to the institution."

✔As Loyal Readers know, the phony Rhodes Scholarship cornered all the headlines. But that's not what this is about. It's about an associate professor and rising academic star who Duke put on its fastest track, a man who brought in tons of cancer research money, a man featured in Duke videos about its medicine, a man fudging his science and saying he had cracked the Holy Grail: he had found in DNA and RNA how to tailor for each individual what chemotherapy would work most effectively and how doses of the horrible cocktails could be kept low.

Duke conducted an internal review last fall after the first suspension of Potti's work. It cleared him and that review is drawing top to bottom criticism. The current suspension is the second.

Fact Checker has great faith in Chancellor Dzau, but does not follow two statements quoted in the Chronicle today:

First, “We want to be transparent, open and supportive—and objective, most importantly,” Dzau said. Supportive of whom?

Second, the Chancellor said he could not release names of Duke people involved in the first review of Potti's work because of the "law" of "attorney-client privilege." Huh? This totally baffles Fact Checker, and it looms large as Duke formulates two new investigations. Some citations please Victor. What is this law.

✔Dzau -- and the silent Brodhead too -- need to affirm that they are not only hiring an outside agency with sterling credentials to investigate, but that the agency will get full access, that it will be allowed to take its investigation in every direction, allowed to reach deep into the administrative fortress, and that its recommendations will be followed.

We are facing a pattern of fraud that Duke should have captured long before today -- even if committed by a single individual. Names are starting to appear: Dr. Joseph Nevins. the Barbara Levine Professor of Breast Cancer Genomics and Director of the Center for Applied Genomics and Technology. Heavyweight.

He is Potti's rabbi and his name appears on many grant applications with Potti. A list of authors on Potti's papers reveals Nevins was his partner and unless he never saw primary data or steps in its analysis, he surely must have had suspicions about the errors as they occurred repeatedly.

And he owns ExpressionAnalysis, a company believed to be contractually providing services for Potti's trials.

There will be a conga line before we are done. How could this happen? And should some people who apparently stepped aside have prevented it? Dr. Mike West, Dr. John Byrd, Dr. Neil Kay. What did they know, if anything. When did they know it?

Oh yes, who should vet the resumes of professors and the applications of students, for that matter.

There is a specter hanging over the Potti case -- and that's Duke's handing of bum science charges against Homme Hellinga, James B. Duke Professor of Biochemistry, still an active member of our faculty. An academic star, winner of the $2.5 million Director's Pioneer award from the National Institutes of Health, there have been serious doubts since 2007 about his design of an enzyme. A Duke Health internal review continues, and Dzau's PR man told the Chronicle last April, “We trust that you and your readers will understand that it would be inappropriate for Duke to comment on any specific proceedings due to confidentiality and other restrictions.”

A similar dally in the Potti case would be disastrous.

✔And now a word about the cancer patients in Potti's studies. As Loyal Readers realize, Duke has not ended Potti's work -- only suspended new enrollments in his trials. This leaves 107 or 109 people who are getting treatment based upon Potti's discoveries -- and that's pretty scary.

Fact Checker had hoped Chancellor Dzau would address this. For the only person who has so far is the aforementioned Dr. Cuffe who of course has a lot at risk since he signed off on Duke's first investigation into Potti.

Your Fact Checker is haunted. A Duke researcher put it this way, anonymously, on the NY Times blog: How many patients with lung cancer suffered unnecessary pneumothoraces (and perhaps death) in order to obtain the tissue Potti needed for his "science." How many of the 107 or 109 patients at Duke getting chemotherapy because of Potti should be receiving another therapy.

And yes there will be lawsuits. Years of them.

✔Lastly, Loyal Readers, I want to comment on transparency. Everyone's talking about it. Duke PR is not doing it.

Each day Duke PR posts links to news coverage of Duke. But not on the Potti affair.

And yesterday, after Fact Checker pointed out one link to a CNN broadcast, PR apparently censored it for... it disappeared.

The headline "Crisis management 101: What can BP CEO Hayward's mistakes teach us?"

✔Fact Checker is traveling, this post coming from a boat at sea! Lucky me. Special thanks for the efforts of the Deputies in this piece.

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