Dr. Piero Anversa had built a dazzling reputation as a revolutionary scientist. As a professor at Harvard Medical School, he directed the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He also served on the Board of Scientific Counselors, a peer-review committee that evaluates the quality of research conducted at National Institute of Health (NIH).
Above all, Dr. Anversa was the pioneer of cardiac stem cells. His research claimed that stem cells – an immature cell type – can regenerate the heart by producing cardiomyocytes (heart cells) along with cells that make up the muscle and blood vessels. In 2001, his lab reported in Nature that transplanted stem cells could restore damaged heart tissue in mice that underwent myocardial infarction, a medical term for heart attack. Then, the Anversa lab showcased in New England Journal of Medicine a study conducted with human patient samples. This study ultimately showed that cells in the human adult heart can divide and grow upon injury. With these two landmark papers, Anversa shattered the prevailing paradigm that the adult heart remains static and incapable of regeneration, inspiring clinical trials for stem cell therapy and rousing hope among patients with cardiac failure.
However in 2018, a series of paper retractions derailed his career, turning him from esteemed scientist to a scandalous fraud. Anversa’s downfall had started years prior, when scientists reported their inability to reproduce Anversa’s findings. For instance in 2014, Dr. Jeffery Molkentin’s lab published in Nature a study that directly challenged Anversa’s claims. Molkentin and colleagues showed that cardiac “stem cells” are unable to generate a significant number of cardiomyocytes upon aging or cardiac injury. In fact, Molkentin and many others questioned the existence of “cardiac stem cells”. Such doubt triggered internal investigations by Harvard and revelations that much of Anversa’s data – mostly microscopic images – were heavily manipulated or outright fabricated. This triggered a series of events that led to the collapse of his career. Anversa was forced to resign, a clinical trial for stem cell therapy was halted, and a 10-million-dollar settlement was reached between the U.S. government and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). With the costly settlement, BWH resolved allegations that Anversa and his lab falsified data to receive federal NIH grants. Despite this resolution, New England Journal of Medicine retracted a former study by Anversa and expressed concern about his other publications in October 2018. Harvard Medical School and BWH then called various academic journals to retract 31 papers published by the Anversa lab. The scandal thus concluded with a rejection of “cardiac stem cells,” which had once awed the scientific community. It importantly told a cautionary tale about a research career built on falsified data, and the hefty punishment that comes along with it.