Retracted Studies Continue to Spur Funding for Cardiac Stem Cell Research

NIH_Editorial_Mark Van Scyoc

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A plethora of articles authored by Piero Anversa, a pioneer in the field of cardiac research and the use of cardiac stem cells, have been retracted due to concerns over data manipulation. Despite the refutation of those articles, they continue to serve as a basis for funding requests from scientists who hope to prove that the heart has stem cells that can regenerate cardiac muscle.

Although the research into this has largely been called into question, Anversa and his research team at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital claimed to have identified cells known as c-kit cells that were responsible for that regeneration. Anversa’s lab received more than $10 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health. Despite those claims made by Anversa, the work has not been reproduced by other labs. Ultimately, due to the charges of data manipulation, Anversa’s lab at Harvard was shuttered in 2015, and none of the researchers currently work for either institution.

Although Anversa’s research has been dismissed, there are those who continue to try and replicate what he claimed to achieve. According to Reuters, the NIH has doled out approximately $588 million to support cardiac stem cell research. Since Anversa’s research was discredited, the NIH has granted more than $249 million to researchers hoping to prove that c-kit cells can regenerate heart muscle.

The NIH told Reuters that it had good reason to continue to finance like-minded research, stating that the decision to dole out millions of dollars in federal money to support the cardiac stem cell research was “supported by a substantial body of evidence” gathered during animal studies.

While the federal agency claims the funding is justified, researchers are debating whether or not those funds were squandered. Charles Murry, who studies embryonic and adult stem cells in his lab at the University of Washington, told Reuters that Anversa’s falsified data has given the field a black eye and tarnished its reputation. Despite that, Murry said there are many, including the NIH, who are “still pretending like it didn’t happen.”

But it did happen. In 2018, Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital retracted 31 articles from multiple publications that were authored by Anversa and his team. Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital reviewed data published by Anversa’s cardiac stem cell team and said that the investigation determined the articles included “falsified and/ or fabricated data.” Those retractions caused the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the NIH, to actually halt its own clinical trial testing an experimental stem cell therapy for heart patients.

Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital also agreed to pay the government a $10 million settlement over allegations of research misconduct involving Anversa and members of his team. 

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