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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[Potti: And that's the goal, is to be able to tell a patient with cancer that I'm not just a cancer doctor, I'm here to treat your particular cancer.]

Dr. Potti made the breakthrough in the renowned lab of Dr. Joseph Nevins. The Nevins Lab had built a reputation for important work. Dr. Nevins saw something in Dr. Potti and he chose the young researcher to mentor and support.

Nevins: Very bright, very smart individual, very capable. He was a very close colleague to many, many people.

Pelley: And to you.

Nevins: And to me.

When Dr. Potti decoded the genetic makeup of hundreds of tumors, the research created huge computer files of data. That data was the underlying proof in research papers under the names of Potti and Nevins that were a sensation in the top medical journals.

Kevin Coombes: It was going to change medicine. It was gonna change how we treat patients.

Doctors everywhere were eager to save lives with the new discovery. At MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Kevin Coombes and Keith Baggerly began analyzing Dr. Potti's data to verify his results.

Pelley: And as you dug into the data, what did you find?

Keith Baggerly: We started some basic processing, and we noticed some things that were really odd that we just couldn't explain.

Coombes and Baggerly are experts in the kind of data created in Dr. Potti's research. They emailed their questions to Duke and Dr. Potti admitted a few clerical errors, but he said that new work confirmed his results. Duke moved ahead. Drs. Nevins and Potti applied for patents and started a company to market the process. They and Duke stood to make a fortune. Patients enrolled in the clinical trial so that their tumors could be surgically biopsied to be matched with the best drug. But at MD Anderson, during months of analysis, Baggerly and Coombes kept finding errors that they thought were alarming.

Baggerly: One of the things that was especially disturbing was that these types of errors happened again and again and again. That was far beyond anything that we'd seen.

They suspected Dr. Potti had somehow reversed some of the data and that some of the patients could be getting, not the best drug for their tumor, but the worst.

Coombes: Then you would be giving patients drugs that would definitely not benefit them. So there's clear, potential for harm there.

Pelley: Exactly the opposite of what this was supposed to be.

Baggerly: So-- yes. So we wrote them and we said, "This-- this-- this is a big problem."

Baggerly and Coombes eventually concluded that Duke's holy grail was worthless. But Drs. Nevins and Potti disagreed.

Pelley: I wonder why, at that point, you didn't say, as the director of the lab, "Look, stop. Too many questions. We have to get to the bottom of this." And put a team together to figure that out.