Top heart lab comes under fire.


I n the study of cardiac regeneration, Piero Anversa is among the heavy hitters. His research into the heart’s repair mechanisms helped kick-start the field of cardiac cell therapy (see main story, p. 252). After more than 4 decades of research and 350 papers, he heads a lab at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston that has more than $6 million in active grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He is also an outspoken voice in a field full of disagreement. So when an ongoing BWH investigation of the lab came to light earlier this year, Anversa’s colleagues were transfixed. “Reactions in the field run the gamut from disbelief to vindication,” says Mark Sussman, a cardiovascular researcher at San Diego State University in California who has collaborated with Anversa. By Sussman’s account, Anversa’s reputation for “pushing the envelope” and “challenging existing dogma” has generated some criticism. Others, however, say that the disputes run deeper—to doubts about a cell therapy his lab has developed and about the group’s scientific integrity. Anversa told Science he was unable to comment during the investigation. “People are talking about this all the time—at every scientific meeting I go to,” says Charles Murry, a cardiovascular pathologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. “It’s of grave concern to people in the field, but it’s been frustrating,” because no information is available about BWH’s investigation. BWH would not comment for this article, other than to say that it addresses concerns about its researchers confidentially. In April, however, the journal Circulation agreed to Harvard’s request to retract a 2012 paper on which Anversa is a corresponding author, citing “compromised” data. The Lancet also issued an “Expression of Concern” about a 2011 paper reporting results from a clinical trial, known as SCIPIO, on which Anversa collaborated. According to a notice from the journal, two supplemental figures are at issue. For some, Anversa’s status has earned him the benefit of the doubt. “Obviously, this is very disconcerting,” says Timothy Kamp, a cardiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but “I would be surprised if it was an implication of a whole career of research.” Throughout that career, Anversa has argued that the heart is a prolific, lifelong factory for new muscle cells. Most now accept the view that the adult heart can regenerate muscle, but many have sparred with Anversa over his high estimates for the rate of this turnover, which he maintained in the retracted Circulation paper. Anversa’s group also pioneered a method of separating cells with potential regenerative abilities from other cardiac tissue based on the presence of a protein called c-kit. After publishing evidence that these cardiac c-kit cells spur new muscle growth in rodent hearts, the group collaborated in the SCIPIO trial to inject them into patients with heart failure. In The Lancet, the scientists reported that the therapy was safe and showed modest ability to strengthen the heart—evidence that many found intriguing and provocative. Roberto Bolli, the cardiologist whose group at the University of Louisville in Kentucky ran the SCIPIO trial, plans to test c-kit cells in further clinical trials as part of the NIH-funded Cardiovascular Cell Therapy Research Network. But others have been unable to reproduce the dramatic effects Anversa saw in animals, and some have questioned whether these cells really have stem cell–like properties. In May, a group led by Jeffery Molkentin, a molecular biologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, published a paper in Nature tracing the genetic lineage of c-kit cells that reside in the heart. He concluded that although they did make new muscle cells, the number is “astonishingly low” and likely not enough to contribute to the repair of damaged hearts. Still, Molkentin says that he “believe[s] in their therapeutic potential” and that he and Anversa have discussed collaborating. Now, an anonymous blogger claims that problems in the Anversa lab go beyond controversial findings. In a letter published on the blog Retraction Watch on 30 May, a former research fellow in the Anversa lab described a lab culture focused on protecting the c-kit cell hypothesis: “[A]ll data that did not point to the ‘truth’ of the hypothesis were considered wrong,” the person wrote. But another former lab member offers a different perspective. “I had a great experience,” says Federica Limana, a cardiovascular disease researcher at IRCCS San Raffaele Pisana in Rome who spent 2 years of her Ph.D. work with the group in 1999 and 2000, as it was beginning to investigate c-kit cells. “In that period, there was no such pressure” to produce any particular result, she says. Accusations about the lab’s integrity, combined with continued silence from BWH, are deeply troubling for scientists who have staked their research on theories that Anversa helped pioneer. Some have criticized BWH for requesting retractions in the midst of an investigation. “Scientific reputations and careers hang in the balance,” Sussman says, “so everyone should wait until all facts are clearly and fully disclosed.” ■ Top heart lab comes under fire

DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6194.254

Cite this paper

@article{Servick2014TopHL, title={Top heart lab comes under fire.}, author={Kelly Servick}, journal={Science}, year={2014}, volume={345 6194}, pages={254} }