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Dr. Anil Potti

Disgraced cancer scientist works in Grand Forks cancer center

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Dr. Anil Potti, the controversial cancer researcher whose work at Duke University led to lawsuits from patients, is now a medical oncologist at the Cancer Center of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

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Over the past year, The New York Times, CBS's "60 Minutes" and NBC news have done big pieces on his failed research at Duke. Earlier this year, he reportedly lost his job in South Carolina after the "60 Minutes" piece aired in February.

But his new boss, Dr. William Noyes, said Potti is a victim of unfair accusations and the negative news "is a dead issue." He said Potti has worked with him since May.

Noyes, who left Altru Health System to start the independent, privately-held Cancer Center, pointed to an article in Science magazine in March. He said the article makes clear the problems at Duke were the result of a systemic failure at that university, not Potti's fault.

Besides, that work did not involve patient care, but clinical trials, which the Cancer Center does not do, Noyes said. "There's never been an issue of patient care. Most, if not all, his patients have loved him."

Potti, 40 and a native of India, has several prior ties to this region, including teaching at UND's School of Medicine and Health Sciences from 2000 to 2003. He was not licensed to practice in North Dakota until this year.

Potti could not be reached Friday. Noyes said Potti is gone until Aug. 28.

Duke blamed

According to the Science magazine article, the national Institute of Medicine found systemic problems with Duke research that led to a lack of oversight, which contributed to a lack of integrity of clinical tests.

"The fallout from the Duke case includes 27 papers that Duke expects to be partially or completely retracted, three cancelled clinical trials, and a lawsuit against Duke by patients in the trials," the magazine reported. "What hap-pened reflects 'a rush' to move genomics-based tests into the clinic and commercialize them, says committee chair Gilbert Omenn, a computational biologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 'There are a lot of lessons here that surely apply to other places,' says Omenn."

Potti and his mentor, Dr. Joseph Nevins, led the research at Duke into gene patterns thought to predict how patients respond to chemotherapy, the magazine said.

Accused of lies

Other researchers soon spotted problems with the Potti-led research.

The increased attention led to widespread accusations that Potti had lied on his resume, including falsely claiming to be a Rhodes scholar. Soon his research was branded useless and worse.

According to the "60 Minutes" report, Potti's own mentor blew the whistle on him.

"Very bright, very smart individual, very capable," Dr. Nevins told "60 Minutes" about Potti.

Checking out concerns raised by other researchers about Potti's work, Nevins concluded it couldn't be simple errors but must have been deliberate fabrication, he told a CBS reporter.

Potti told "60 Minutes" he did not intentionally mislead anyone.

In the aftermath of the scandal, Potti was forced to leave Duke in 2010. He was hired last year at a medical practice in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

But according to the Science magazine article, "after '60 Minutes' aired its segment about the controversy in February, he was let go."

Patients' praise

Noyes, however, denies Potti was fired and says Potti is one of the most gifted doctors he's ever seen.

"There is probably no one brighter or who works harder for his patients than Dr. Potti," Noyes said. "We double-checked with his references locally.... He walked on water. I've never heard so many compliments."

Although there is no mention of Potti on the Cancer Center's website, that's only because of web design problems, Noyes said.

Potti graduated in 1995 from the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. He did his residency in a UND program in Fargo from 1996 to 2000.

From 2000 to 2003, he taught at UND, winning an award for humanism in medicine in 2003, the year he left for Duke.

Noyes said he got to know Potti in 2005 through friends.

Potti is a victim of "politics" at Duke, Noyes said. "If a guy can't get a second chance here in North Dakota, where he trained, man, you can't get a second chance anywhere."

Light discipline

North Dakota's State Board of Medical Examiners voted unanimously to grant Potti a license to practice medicine on July 27, said Duane Houdek, executive director of the Board.

Potti had been working under a provisional license since May, Houdek said.

The Board had not been aware until Friday that Potti lost a job earlier this year in South Carolina, according to Houdek. But the Board did look at Potti's public reprimands from state medical boards in North Carolina and Missouri, as well as the Duke scandal.

"We reviewed those matters," Houdek said. "There was an investigation by the North Carolina board, which we know to be a very responsible medical board. They've got a really excellent reputation."

The public reprimand issued by the North Carolina board is a light discipline that didn't restrict Potti's practice of medicine, Houdek said. Missouri's similar reprimand simply was an echo based on the North Carolina board's action, he said.

"We did not see anything in his history that had to do with competency of direct patient care or anything like that," he said. "That was the basis for our issuing him a license. Obviously the whole thing with the clinical trials is disturbing."

Houdek said his reading of the Institute of Medicine's report on the Duke research seemed to put the blame on institutional problems at Duke, rather than Potti.

It's true Potti has settled about a dozen malpractice lawsuits from patients, Houdek said, but they all appear to be related to the same issue: the clinical trials at Duke.

The North Carolina medical board's website lists settlements against Potti of at least $75,000.

Noyes said such settlements, to forestall more costly litigation, are a fact of life for physicians. "It happens all the time, it happens to everyone."

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