Hope for Cardiac Stem Cell Treatments Dashed by Research Retractions

It’s the latest effort in damage control in a scandal that’s embarrassed Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Thirty-one papers that Piero Anversa, MD, worked on should be retracted from medical journals, according to a statement made by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The statement was made to Stat and Retraction Watch this week and represents the latest development in a scandal that has roiled the usually quietly cerebral world of peer-reviewed medical journals.  

As Benoit Bruneau, associate director of cardiovascular research at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, told the New York Times: “A couple of papers may be alarming, but 31 additional papers in question is almost unheard-of. It is a lab’s almost entire body of work, and therefore almost an entire field of research, put into question.”

The lab in question was run by Anversa at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. (Anversa left Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2015.)

In 2001, Anversa published a study that said that stem cells could be injected into the heart and be transformed into heart cells. As the Times reported, the findings “electrified researchers” and entire companies were formed to race to develop a method that would repair hearts.

No other researchers could replicate Anversa’s results, however, and doubts began to be voiced. In 2017, Brigham and Women’s Hospital agreed to pay the federal government $10 million to settle a case in which Anversa was accused of using fraudulent data to get research funding.

That didn’t stop a small number of researchers from publishing findings that agree with Anversa’s. Jeffery D. Molkentin, a professor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Cincinnati Children’s Heart Institute, told Stat: “It’s just discouraging when you see these papers keep popping up. There are no stem cells in the heart. Quit trying to publish those results.”

The Times asked Molkentin about those companies that continue trying to sell those treatments.

“People want to believe,” Molkentin said.