Deception at Duke: Fraud in cancer care?

Were some cancer patients at Duke University given experimental treatments based on fabricated data? Scott Pelley reports.

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Chemotherapy can be a tough road for people with cancer, often debilitating and even dangerous. Which is why five years ago, when Duke University announced that it had an advanced, experimental treatment that would match chemotherapy to a patient's own genetic makeup, it was hailed as the holy grail of cancer care. The scientist behind the discovery was Dr. Anil Potti, and soon Dr. Potti became the face of the future of cancer treatment at Duke, offering patients a better chance even with advanced disease. However, when other scientists set out to verify the results, they found many problems and errors. What our 60 Minutes investigation reveals is that Duke's so-called breakthrough treatment wasn't just a failure -- it may end up being one of the biggest medical research frauds ever.

The following is a script of "Deception at Duke" which aired on Feb. 12, 2012. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Kyra Darnton, producer.

Five years ago, Duke University announced it had found the holy grail of cancer research. They'd discovered how to match a patient's tumor to the best chemotherapy drug. It was a breakthrough because every person's DNA is unique, so every tumor is different. A drug that kills a tumor in one person, for example, might not work in another. The research was published in the most prestigious medical journals. And more than a hundred desperately ill people invested their last hopes in Duke's innovation.

In 2010, we learned that the new method was a failure. But what isn't widely known, until tonight, is that the discovery wasn't just a failure, it may end up being one of the biggest medical research frauds ever - one that deceived dying patients, the best medical journals and a great university.

[Dr. Anil Potti: Duke has made a commitment to fight this war against cancer at a much higher level.]

Dr. Anil Potti, featured in this commercial for Duke University, had made a discovery that promised to change the face of medicine.

[Potti: Genomics will revolutionize cancer therapy. It actually identifies a fingerprint that's unique to every individual patient.]

Dr. Rob Califf: This is sort of like the holy grail of cancer.

Dr. Rob Califf is Duke's vice chancellor of clinical research.

Scott Pelley: Was the idea here that this would change the way we thought about treating cancer?

Califf: Well, you've never seen such excitement at an institution, and it's understandable.

It wasn't just Duke that was excited. A hundred and twelve patients signed up for the revolutionary therapy. Hope was fading for Juliet Jacobs when she learned about it. She had Stage IV lung cancer. And this would be her last chance.

Walter Jacobs: She was my best friend, but that's kind of cliche. She's, she's somebody who after 49 and a half years, I was still madly in love with.

She and her husband Walter were looking into experimental treatments. They had to choose carefully because there was only time for one.

Scott Pelley: When you met Dr. Potti, what did you think?

Jacobs: We felt that he was going to give us a chance. He was... He was very encouraging.

For a patient with no time, Dr. Potti's research promised the right drug, right now.

Pelley: Fair to say Potti was a rising star at Duke?

Califf: Potti was one of our most important rising stars.

A lot of people were pleased that it was Dr. Potti who made the discovery of a lifetime. Born in India, he was known as an earnest, modest, hardworking Rhodes scholar, who did research at the University of North Dakota before reaching Duke in 2003. He was a young man with a big idea, which he explained in an interview for Duke.