Cardiac stem cell treatment pioneer fabricated 31 studies, Harvard & Brigham conclude
Piero Anversa’s research first made waves in 2001, when he published a paper in Nature suggesting that stem cells could regenerate damaged heart muscle. The revolutionary discovery sparked a massive clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health and led to the formation of numerous startup companies seeking to develop new treatments for heart attacks and stroke based on his research.
Anversa conducted his research at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In April 2017, after reviewing his work for four years, Brigham and Women’s paid $10 million to the federal government to settle allegations the doctor had secured research funding using fraudulent data.
Researchers injected bone marrow stem cells into the hearts of mice, reporting that they then turned into heart cells, repairing damage to the tissue. The implication – that this procedure could heal hearts that had been damaged by heart attacks – led to the formation of multiple companies, including one led by Anversa himself, to explore therapeutic possibilities.
Other researchers began to suspect Anversa’s work was not what it seemed when they were unable to duplicate his results. Dr. Irving Weissman of Stanford University and Dr. Charles Murry of the University of Washington in Seattle both found that bone marrow cells injected into the heart remained just bone marrow cells. Dr. Jeffery Molkentin developed a way to trace the lineage of stem cells and used this technique to confirm that heart cells in the experiments were not actually derived from stem cells.
In 2014, Anversa was forced to retract a paper when its supposed co-authors wrote to the journal to complain they had not generated the data attributed to them. He left Brigham and Women’s in 2015. Even then, the medical establishment did not lose its faith in him. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute began a clinical trial of injected stem cells that year, and the trial is still enrolling patients.
The cardiologist and his research colleague Dr. Annarosa Leri were nothing if not bold, suing Brigham and Women’s and Harvard for notifying journals of the retraction, claiming the news damaged their careers even as they acknowledged having fabricated data in the retracted paper and altering figures in a 2011 paper. The suit was dismissed in 2015 and Anversa was invited to speak at an Italian medical conference the following year.
Harvard did not comment on why they took so long to retract Anversa’s work, which had become the basis for the entire field of cardiac stem cell research.
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