Wednesday June 22, 2022

Scientific scandal: The lies about heart

Scientific scandal: The lies about heart

Illustrative image.

The news agency Reuters has unearthed a scientific scandal of huge proportions where millions of dollars continued to be given in funds for research that has been found to have been based on fake data.

The scandal is about the claim made by Piero Anversa of the Harvard Medical School working at his laboratory in Brigham and Boston Women’s Hospital in Boston that adult stem cells can rejuvenate the heart.

The claim was made in 2001 and funds began to flow into the project in abundance, and a flurry of research papers came out too on the subject, and these research papers were published by top medical journals like The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine.

This was found to be false by Mario Ricciardi, who was thrilled to be accepted as a member of the Anversa team.

But soon he and other scientists found that Anversa’s research claims could not be replicated. They reported it to officials at Brigham. After six years of investigation, Brigham and Harvard concluded that Anversa’s lab had “falsified and/or fabricated data” in 31 papers authored by Anversa and his research collaborators. The US Justice Department in a civil settlement with Brigham found that Anversa’s lab had relied on “fabrication of data and images” and indulged in “reckless or deliberately misleading record-keeping.”

Jeffrey Molkentin, director of molecular cardiovascular biology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital asks the pertinent question: “Now that we know adult stem cells do not regenerate the heart and past work suggesting otherwise was false, why hasn’t this knowledge traversed its way through the medical and research systems, and why do such studies persist?” There seems to be no answer because the funding has not stopped, and the funding ran into hundreds of millions of dollars.

The National Institutes of Health has spent $588 million on whether stem cells can rejuvenate the heart, of which $249 million were spent after 2013 when it was found out that there was fabrication of data.

It looks like that as in other fields, in science too an attractive proposition, however unproven, triggers irrational enthusiasm across the system, the funding agencies, the science journals and the institutional mechanism that oversee research. “Suddenly (Anversa) had celebrity status, and it became easier  for him to get papers published and funding.

Because who is going to want to turn down this guy who could be saving the world from heart disease? ” said Ferric C Fang , University of Washington microbiologist who studied scientific journal retractions. Nineteen of those 31 articles have been retracted by reputed journals, and they have not even explained as to how the gatekeeping failed.

The Lancet blamed the lab authorities. Nature, the foremost science journal, which had published one of Anversa’s articles that created the popular buzz, was cryptic in its acknowledgement that an error of judgment had occurred.

There seems to be an all-round conspiracy of silence in a bid to hush it all up because there is egg on everyone’s face.

The initial claim of Anversa and his collaborators was that adult stem cells rejuvenated or healed in the mice, but it was not verified that it could happen in human heart.

Charles Murry of the University of Washington studying embryonic and adult stem cells called out saying “This is a terrible black eye for our field. But everyone is still pretending like it didn’t happen.”

Anversa’s lab at Brigham was closed in 2015, and Brigham paid back $10 million to the NIH. While Anversa, who now stays in retirement in New York, refused to respond to Reuter’s queries saying he did not want to bring all that up again.

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