If it sounds like it’s too good to be true, then it probably is. This proverb may come across as pessimistic; however, it seems to be ringing true for Piero Anversa. Anversa made waves in the field of cardiology with his studies on cardiac muscle regeneration and the proposed use of cardiac stem cells to treat heart failure. In a 2012 paper, Anversa claimed to use carbon-14 dating to measure cardiac muscle renewal and reported high levels of regeneration: 7 percent per year in 20- to 40-year-olds and 19 percent in 80-year-olds. This exciting finding contradicted a Science paper published in 2009 by Jonas Frisén’s laboratory. Frisén’s lab was the first to use the same carbon-14 method to measure cardiac muscle regeneration; however, they estimated that only 1 percent of cardiac muscle cells are renewed per year in 25-year-olds, and only 0.45 percent of cells renewed in 75-year-olds.
The obvious disagreement between these two papers fueled a push by the field of cardiology to try to reproduce Anversa’s findings, but many labs failed. However, the Anversa lab moved forward, and the work in their lab and several others laid the groundwork for testing various cardiac stem cell treatments in patients. However, in 2014 Harvard shared that it was investigating Anversa, and called for the retraction of his 2012 paper. By 2015, the Anversa lab had closed. In the investigation and trial that followed, Partners HealthCare System and Brigham and Women’s Hospital agreed to pay a $10 million settlement for use of false scientific information in applications to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by Anversa and some of his collaborators. The final nail in the coffin seemed to come this past October when Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital recommended the retraction of 31 papers from the Anversa lab. This also resulted in the pausing of a phase II clinical trial investigating the therapeutic use of cardiac stem cells for heart failure.
The NIH requires all graduate students supported by its training grants to undergo ethics training in the responsible conduct of research, which at Johns Hopkins consists of two four-hour seminars. It is not uncommon for students to complain about the length of the course, and easy to disregard the content as not being applicable to one’s work. The vast majority of scientists behave ethically, and when a story like this comes along, we are shocked. How would a person think they could get away with falsifying or fabricating data? Not only does the retraction of papers negatively impact a field of research, it also damages the public’s perception of scientists.
When a field of study is faced with these problems, it is important to put things in perspective and focus on the great science and advances happening in other areas. This is easily accomplished at Johns Hopkins. Recently, Hopkins opened a new center to bring together engineers, computer scientists and cardiologists in a collaboration called the Alliance for Cardiovascular Diagnostic and Treatment Innovation, or ADVANCE. Directed by Natalia Trayanova and Hugh Calkins, the mission of ADVANCE is to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease by applying computational modeling and innovations in cardiac imaging. Regardless of what might be happening in the field at large, Johns Hopkins is always sure to be at the forefront of new innovations and advancing patient care, and the ADVANCE Center is yet another example of the institution’s commitment to bringing together researchers and clinicians alike to most effectively solve today’s health problems.
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