Whistleblower Nuovo fired by OSU Medical Center for exposing alleged fraud

OSU is facing a very public scandal as a result of Coach Jim Tressel's resignation under embarrassing circumstances and allegations of unethical behavior affecting its many football fans. However, the scandal involving OSU's medical center and Dr. Gerard Nuovo affecting the health and well-being of many female patients, are potentially more explosive and costly to the university.

The Columbus Free Press obtained public records documenting that the Ohio State Medical Center recently fired whistleblower Dr. Gerard Nuovo for allegedly filing frivolous charges of scientific misconduct against Sanford Barsky, M.D.

At the crux of the matter is the reproductive health of female patients seen at the Ohio State Medical Center (OSUMC). Nuovo, the OSUMC gynecological pathologist, blew the whistle several times over the last few years on the medical center's practices of giving women unnecessary surgery on their cervix and endometrium, based on misinterpreted Pap smear results or biopsy misdiagnoses by inexperienced pathologists. Nuovo provided OSU President E. Gordon Gee a list of patients given the incorrect diagnosis of Human Papillomavirus virus (HPV) and who had undergone unnecessary surgeries. Nuovo pointed out that a simple and inexpensive objective test for HPV would have prevented 30% of the women patients in the OSUMC from receiving unnecessary surgeries.

Nuovo informed Barsky, his then-Chair of Pathology, about the misdiagnoses and unnecessary surgeries. Instead of investigating the allegations to protect women's health, Barsky removed Nuovo from his position diagnosing women's biopsies at OSUMC. Nuovo remained a faculty member in the pathology department at OSU. Barsky replaced Nuovo with a junior pathologist with little or no training in the field of Gyn pathology. Barsky is now the Chair of Pathology Department at the University of Nevada and Nevada Cancer Institute's Chief of Pathology.

Nuovo had been a tenured professor at the College of Medicine's Department of Pathology for twelve years. In addition, Nuovo authored a textbook on gynecologic pathology and co-wrote a textbook entitled "Human Papillomavirus and the Relationship to Genital Tract Neoplasms." He also published over 260 peer-reviewed articles and has written 37 chapters in various medical books.

Ironically, OSU's Tressel was mired in scandal and resigned for failing to reveal the unethical behavior and violations of school policy of his players, yet Nuovo was fired for following Ohio State Medical Board and the American Medical Association guidelines in revealing unethical behavior by Barsky.

In the public records obtained by the Free Press, allegations of possible scientific fraud by Barsky are clearly articulated. The documents include experts in the field of molecular pathology assessing the validity of Barsky's research without knowledge of the author. At question is whether Barsky submitted research data that was passed off as new that had been duplicated and doctored from his own previous publications. The experts examined images of tissues and RNA analyses from various Barsky publications.

Dr. Yilan L. Chang of Summa Health Services said of Barsky's data: "Based on my experience and observation and the corresponding legends of the images, each pair demonstrates the same images in different publications or the images of the same tissue with different experimental conditions in different articles."

Dr. Margaret Brandwein, an M.D. from the University of Alabama, Birmingham also stated that, "I am certain that this actually represents the same figure...."

Omar Bagasra, M.D., Ph.D., Biology professor with over 150 peer-reviewed papers and the author of several textbooks noted that the two images in "'First set' are identical – that is – the photo in the 2006 article came from the same exact image from the 2000 article."

Dr. Bagasra compared a second set of images, stating that:"Similarly, the two images in ‘Second set' are identical – that is – the photo in the 2006 article came from the same exact from the 2005 article." Again, with a third set, he said "Similarly, the multiple images in ‘Third Set' show multiple instances where the same pre-existing image was re-used and presented as original data." He went on to say," "It appears that the authors might have made special efforts to modify the appearance by changing colors, magnifications and slight changes in the focus areas to make the same pictures different."

Dr. Bagasra concluded that, "I state that this is a serious issue that, at a minimum, requires investigation by other Pathologists with expertise…."

When reached at the University of Nevada School of Medicine and asked for a comment, Barksy said it was the first he had heard of Dr. Nuovo's firing, and declined to comment.

The Free Press has learned that only three tenured professors have lost their tenure during the last 20 years at OSUMC. All were for criminal felony convictions. Nuovo was fired for allegedly filing frivolous charges of scientific misconduct. The evidence obtained by the Free Press suggests that the charges were anything but frivolous. The public records that show some of the published data by Barsky are attached to this article, so the reader can make their own determination if duplicate data is being reused, at times indicating different experiments. If so, then the charges cannot be frivolous. The Free Press has learned that Nuovo had also informed Dr. Gee on multiple occasions that there was possible scientific fraud with federal moneys, yet the only action OSUMC has taken is to fire Nuovo.

It appears that Dr. Nuovo was fired for blowing the whistle on unnecessary operations that may have generated revenue for OSUMC, as well as revealing the alleged scientific fraud, since OSU could be considered liable for this as well. A letter from the legal division of the National Organization of Women (NOW) Education and Legal Fund pointed out that the OSU Medical Center makes huge profits from the misdiagnoses. A public record document from Barsky indicated that about $1.5 million of the OSU pathology profits end up donated to the Dean's office. "Although it is clear that unnecessary surgeries provide OSUMC financial rewards, particularly useful in its current expansion campaign, it is unconscionable to make those financial gains on the backs of women through diagnosis, cervical biopsy and amputation," the NOW letter said. The NOW letter to Gee appeared in the December 30, 2010 issue of Columbus' The Other Paper as an ad.

The Gee Letter as a PDF

David Crawford, Senior Director of Media Relations for the OSUMC, initially told the Free Press that Nuovo had not been fired. When pressed for details, he said he would get back with the paper. While Nuovo was fired from the OSUMC, he still is working on $60 million dollars of grant-funded programs, according to Nuovo's attorney William Patmon.

Patmon confirmed the firing and stated the following: " Dr. Nuovo has committed his entire life to women's health. I believe that President Gordon Gee is a man of integrity and that he and the Board of Trustees do not have all the facts. I believe if they had all the facts they would stop this [firing] process and stop the firing of this man."

"President Gee has a chance to stop this. If they don't stop this [firing] process within the next two weeks, this information will be reported in journals and Dr. Nuovo will be irreparably harmed."

While the Tressel affair may harm Buckeye football pride, Nuovo's firing is ultimately a much greater scandal that could lead to a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the university. Since Gee was informed of unethical behaviors by Nuovo, unlike in the Tressel affair, the scandal may tarnish Gee's reputation beyond repair as well.

Bob Fitrakis is the editor of the Free Press.