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Cancer survivor on bogus Duke study: 'I was nothing but a laboratory rat'

Posted June 10, 2015

— Joyce Shoffner survived a battle with breast cancer perhaps, she said, to share the story of the patients who took part in a clinical trial at Duke University that has been called one of the largest cases of medical fraud in history.

"I don’t know why I’m still alive. It’s not because of Duke, but by the grace of God I’m still here," Shoffner said Tuesday.

Dr. Anil Potti said he had discovered a way to match a patient's tumor to the best chemotherapy drug, and Duke enrolled patients in three clinical trials related to his research.

Shoffner, now 68 and living in Raleigh, said she was enrolled in a trial within a month of her June 2008 cancer diagnosis.

"It was presented to me in such a way there was no way I could lose," she said. "I went into it with a false sense of confidence that I would most certainly come out of this with no tumor."

Chemotherapy left her hospitalized with blood clots, however, and her tumor continued to grow. After four months, her doctor told her the trial had ended because of "some problems with the data."

"I started immediately going through this trauma and devastation of finding that this was not going to save me and all that I had gone through was for naught," she said.

Duke halted work on the trials in 2010 after learning that Potti had exaggerated his credentials, including claiming that he was a Rhodes scholar.

Two published papers based on Potti's research were retracted after a collaborator said the results of his work couldn't be reproduced, and the American Cancer Society withdrew its funding for his research.

"They never stopped after red flags went up. The flags went up before I ever went into the trial," Shoffner said.

Eight families of trial participants that later sued Duke, Duke University Health System and affiliated physicians, alleging that researchers raised questions about Potti's research as early as 2006. The lawsuit, which was settled last month, alleged that Duke officials tried to cover up questions about the research and performed unnecessary chemotherapy on people in hopes of patenting and spinning off a cancer-screening test.

"It’s enough to be diagnosed with cancer. That’s all you should have to worry about when you have cancer, but on top of it, I’ve had to feel I was betrayed by an institution I revered," said Shoffner, who worked at Duke for decades.

"I feel like, at this point, I was nothing but a laboratory rat," she said. "We were all victims of human experimentation that you don’t expect to be happening in this day and age."

Duke officials declined to comment on the case, and terms of the legal settlement haven't been disclosed. Potti resigned from Duke in late 2010.

Shoffner, one of only two of the eight plaintiffs still alive, blames "fame and money" for the pursuit of the clinical trials in the face of concerns about the underlying research.

"They had the end results set up. They just needed to make everything fit in with it," she said. "Just think about a person’s life. Don’t think about the money you’ll make."

Although she is in remission, her doctors continue to monitor her for any cancer recurrence. She now undergoes treatment at UNC Hospitals.

She said she also has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which she attributes to her experience in the Duke clinical trial, which she now calls "the Potti mess."

"It just affects my everyday life," she said. "It’s always sitting up there on your shoulder."


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  • H.D. Derrington Jun 11, 2015
    user avatar

    The reason that the doctor got away with embellishing his credentials is that Duke and a lot of medical professionals give anyone who claims to be a PhD or a MD the benefit of the doubt instead of actually checking. You would be shocked at what some doctors claim and get away with claiming.

  • Susan Olvera Jun 11, 2015
    user avatar

    Chemotherapy can save lives but it also takes them. My friend lost her 17 years old daughter not to the recent lymphoma diagnosis she was given, but to the blood clots caused by chemo. Her heart disintegrated. She started bruising and 12 hours later died. I pray one day we find the cause of cancer because I believe drug companies will never reveal the cure for it.

  • Robert Smith Jun 11, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    "I was nothing but a lab rat". Aren't all participating a study a "lab rat"?

    While the idea of protecting other through ones lawsuit may sound nice, but in reality, the money will come out of insurances. Hospital will make the extra cost of insurance out of the patients. That's why the cost of health care is so high in US.

    BTW, how on earth did her cancer go away?

  • Marcy Lyn Jun 11, 2015
    user avatar

    I believe the expectation that signing up for a "study" would make one think that there had been some success and the validation of the "study group" would assist in making the drug/treatment available for other. However, if there deception at the start of the "study" then the person has been lied to and been subjected to the "study" unfairly. Anyone facing a Cancer is hoping for a cure and willing to try but not with a test that is completely bogus.

    Sorry for the ones who did not seek adequate care.

    When you are not given all the facts at the beginning, your choices are based upon a lie. You can not make educated choices based on a lie.

  • Robert Smith Jun 11, 2015
    user avatar

    I had similar experience at Duke following knee replacement surgery as I had complications and they posted false information in my medical charts after the surgery did not go well. I DO NOT TRUST DUKE HOSPITAL?

  • Rebecca Caldwell Jun 11, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    Really? If you we lead to believe that you were getting ground-breaking, effective treatment from a doctor at Duke University, you bypassed established treatments to participate in this study, and then you found out there was no scientific basis to ever believe the treatment would be successful... you wouldn't sue? Don't kid yourself. If you didn't, you would be an imbecile. I'm guessing some people lost their lives because of what happened here. We can't criminally prosecute the institution for failing to do due diligence, and it's unlikely criminal charges will be filed against individuals. The ONLY effective recourse our society allows us is a civil suit, and it's the threat of civil suits that ensures most organizations try to maintain ethical standards. Don't look down your nose at people who turn to the courts for help. They are protecting you, too.

  • Gail Dragon Jun 11, 2015
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    Why wouldn't they discover the exaggerated credentials before he ever started work there? A thorough follow through checking credentials would have at least prevented the hiring of this Doctor, which I would think considering the nature of the job is essential.

  • Robert Smith Jun 11, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    I guess Duke is being held responsible.

    Then again, "Rhodes Scholar Scandal" was her winning lottery, and she definitely cashed it. Such is our culture here. "Sue, Sue, Sue"

  • Ching Lee Jun 10, 2015
    user avatar

    Ever hear of a double blind study? It's not new and I bet it was explained to her on the way in.

  • Charlie Jaxon Jun 10, 2015
    user avatar

    Why should Duke care what they put in humans? Duke would be the very last hospital that I would ever go to. Just do a search for "Duke Heart Transplant to wrong child". That should be proof not to go there...