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Fraud casts a shadow over stem cell research

VISCAThe National Institutes of Health (NIH), the leading biomedical research funding agency in the United States, has instructed researchers to temporarily suspend stem cell therapy trials in heart failure patients while the scientific basis for the treatment is reevaluated, after an investigation at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston concluded that one of its researchers, Italian-American physician Piero Anversa, falsified and/or fabricated data published in 31 scientific papers related to the therapy. The hospital already made an agreement with the federal government in April 2017 to repay US$10 million as a result of evidence that Anversa used fraudulent data in funding applications, such as manipulated confocal microscopy images and falsified stem cell ages.

Anversa gained notoriety in the early 2000s by proposing that the heart could regenerate itself using stem cells. His research had strong repercussions in the field, and doctors from various institutions were keen to test its feasibility. The US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), which is responsible for the research suspended by the NIH, explained that the experiment involves scientists from other laboratories and not just the Harvard University group that Anversa worked with. The pause, however, will allow the board to examine the trial and “assure that it continues to meet the highest levels of adherence to participant safety and scientific integrity,” David Goff, director of the cardiovascular sciences division at the NHLBI, told The Washington Post.

In recent years, several groups have failed to replicate Anversa’s results, raising suspicions that something was amiss. Charles Murry, from the University of Washington, and Loren Field, from Indiana University, published an article in Nature in 2014 showing that contrary to Anversa’s observations, bone marrow stem cells did not turn into heart cells. In his work, Anversa described experiments indicating that when injected into the hearts of mice, adult bone marrow stem cells generated blood vessels and heart cells that repopulated 70% of the area damaged by a heart attack (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 260). As a result of the questions being asked about the doctor’s research, Harvard University, where he started working in 2007, opened an investigation into some of his studies and asked for some papers to be retracted. Anversa claims he is innocent and blames another employee for altering research data. “I am an 80-year-old man who has worked all his life in an attempt to have an impact on heart failure,” said the researcher in an interview with The New York Times. “Now I am isolated.”