In 2001, Dr. Piero Anversa, a prominent and well-respected scientist specializing in regenerative medicine, published a report indicating that certain stem cells found in bone marrow could be used to repair damaged heart tissue.  However, further research failed to confirm his findings, casting aspersions on his claims.  Last week, Harvard Medical School announced the results of an investigation, which determined that Dr. Anversa falsified the data.  Officials are now calling for the retraction of over 30 of his scientific papers.

Based on his studies, Anversa and his colleagues claimed that a certain group of stem cells, known as “c-kit” progenitor cells, could be used to heal and regenerate hearts damaged by disease and adverse myocardial events. His findings attracted millions of dollars in federal research grants and led to a major clinical trial underwritten by the National Institutes for Health.  Anversa’s research also encouraged entrepreneurs to form start-up companies for the development of new treatments – despite the fact that other researchers were unable to reproduce his results.

According to Anversa, stem cells from bone marrow could be injected directly into the heart muscle, where they would transform and repair injuries caused by heart attacks and stroke.  He even started his own company, intending to profit from his work.  However, later studies at Stanford University and the University of Washington came to different conclusions.  Those immature cells, known as hematopoietic stem cells, while able to grow into different types of cells are limited in their ability to differentiate (unlike embryonic stem cells, which can develop into virtually any other kind of cell).

In short, bone marrow stem cells injected into the heart remain unchanged and do nothing.

Despite growing evidence to the contrary, Anversa continued to defend his results, suggesting that others’ methods were flawed.  He then went on to claim discovery of a method using stem cells from the heart muscle itself. According to Anversa, these stem cells could be removed, allowed to reproduce in the lab and injected back into the heart, where they could repair damaged tissue.  However, a subsequent study  published in 2014 found that while heart stem cells were indeed capable of growing cardiac muscle cells (known as cardiomyocytes), their ability to do so was limited to a “functionally insignificant level.”

All of this cast such a shadow of doubt over Anversa’s research that he finally stepped down from his position at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in 2015.  Last year, the Harvard investigation conclusions led to BWH having to pay $10 million dollars in order to settle allegations that Anversa and his colleagues had obtained federal research grants under false pretenses by manipulating and falsifying lab results.  This month, officials at Harvard Medical School announced that 31 of Anversa’s studies should be retracted.

Appallingly, a clinical study on the use of cardiac stem cells in regenerative heart treatment is continuing to enroll volunteers, despite the discrediting of Anversa’s research.  Predictably, startup companies are continuing to seek profits by marketing what has now been proven to be useless treatments to desperate heart patients, eager to find a miracle – and willing to pay the price.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.