Two of the USA’s most prominent medical research institutions have called for the retraction of a string of prominent papers based on work supposedly conducted in their laboratories. The studies gave hope to millions of people with damaged hearts about the possibilities for cures, and spawned companies once valued at many millions of dollars. Now they’ve caused heartbreak of a different sort.
Dr Piero Anversa inspired great excitement in 2001 with a paper in Nature in which he claimed to have used stem cells from bone marrow to restore 68 percent of the damaged tissue in a mouse heart.
The significance was hard to miss, and the paper has been cited an astonishing 6,765 times since.
Companies were created to commercialize the work, including one named Autologous/Progenital headed by Anversa himself. The publicity the work achieved gave credibility to highly dubious stem cell therapies promoted for many other conditions.
Yet within three years, Nature had published two other papers from other scientists who had tried to replicate Anversa’s work, and failed. Both teams reported that when bone marrow cells were injected into damaged heart tissue, they failed to fulfill their potential to transform into heart cells.
It appeared either Anversa had some secret weapon he was hiding, or he had faked his results.
Anversa was not deterred, continuing to publish papers in leading journals, including claiming the heart has its own stem cells, which he called c-kit cells. Anversa claimed appropriate nurturing of c-kit cells could remove the need to use bone marrow. The fact he was doing his work at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital gave Anversa some protection against the skeptics, but as time went on doubts grew as more and more labs failed to get the same results.
The problems for Anversa really hit in 2014. Yet another Nature paper provided powerful evidence stem cells were not, in fact, transforming into heart cells at any significant rate. Meanwhile, some of Anversa’s own co-authors asked for a paper they had published with him to be retracted, saying it included results different from those they had actually produced. On the other hand, Anversa blamed his co-authors for flaws that led to one of his papers being retracted.
Harvard and Brigham and Women began investigations, and Anversa left both institutions the following year. In 2017 Brigham and Women’s Hospital paid $10 million to the federal government in response to claims they had received funding for Anversa’s work based on previous fraudulent claims.
Nevertheless, both institutions continued to look into the matter, rather than admit the papers should be withdrawn. Now the institutions have called for a remarkable 31 papers to be retracted, but no explanation has been provided as to why so much time was needed. A lawsuit Anversa and a colleague launched against Harvard may have contributed to the delay.
Retractions of flawed papers are a healthy part of the scientific process. The website Retraction Watch estimates this happens around 1,400 times a year, but to have 31 withdrawn at the same time is highly unusual. It suggests recent similar problems in psychology are not confined to that discipline.
As always when scientific fraud is uncovered, the situation is both an embarrassment to science, and a vindication. Anversa’s deception should never have been allowed to go on for so long, yet the fact the issue has been addressed at all contrasts with the way pseudosciences respond to their mistakes, accusations, or lack of replicable data.
[H/T: New York Times]