The New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday retracted one paper from the lab of a controversial stem cell researcher and issued an “expression of concern” about two others published in its pages, dating to as long ago as 2001.
The journal’s move comes three days after Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital told STAT and Retraction Watch they had recommended that 31 papers from Dr. Piero Anversa be retracted by medical journals. The medical school and the hospital did not name the journals where the work appeared.
Anversa directed a lab at the Brigham from 2007 through 2015, but he previously gained prominence as a stem-cell researcher at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y.
The New England Journal said Wednesday several of Anversa’s co-authors of the 2011 study “Evidence for human lung stem cells” asked the journal to retract their paper, citing an investigation by Harvard and the Brigham that concluded some of the images in the article were manipulated. “A review of the original data affirms this conclusion and has led us to conclude that we no longer have faith in the veracity of these images,” the journal’s retraction says, quoting unnamed co-authors. “As we were not aware of this manipulation of the data until long after the paper had been published, we now request that the article be retracted.”
The two earlier papers, “Evidence that human cardiac myocytes divide after myocardial infarction,” published in 2001, and “Chimerism of the transplanted heart,” published in 2002, came from Anversa’s lab at New York Medical College. The journal, in its expression of concern, also refers to an investigation of Anversa’s work at the Brigham that found evidence consistent with fabrication of data and image manipulation, casting doubt on the two papers.
“We are communicating with the authors of the 2001 and 2002 articles and with institutional officials at the New York Medical College concerning the veracity of the data presented therein,” the journal said.
Anversa’s research focused on advancing the idea that the heart contains stem cells that could regenerate cardiac muscle after a heart attack. But when various research teams tried to reproduce results reported in his papers, they failed.
Last year, the Brigham agreed to a $10 million settlement with the U.S. government over allegations Anversa and two colleagues’ work had been used to fraudulently obtain federal funding. Anversa and Dr. Annarosa Leri sued Harvard and the Brigham unsuccessfully for alerting journals to problems in their work back in 2014.
“Neither Dr. Anversa nor Dr. Leri ever altered or changed images or data at any time,” their lawyers, Nicholas Theodorou and Michael Boudett of the law firm Foley Hoag, said in an email Wednesday evening. “Drs. Anversa and Leri stand by the scientific findings in their papers, including the existence and potential therapeutic benefits of cardiac stem cells.”
Anversa’s lab closed in 2015; Anversa, Leri, and their colleague Dr. Jan Kajstura no longer work at the hospital. Kajstura is the first author on the now-retracted New England Journal study on lung stem cells.
The three authors have had at least one paper already retracted, and one subject to an expression of concern. Anversa has previously corrected eight of his papers, many for failures to disclose conflicts of interest.
Anversa was most recently affiliated with the Cardiocentro Ticino and University of Zurich, according to publications. An email sent to his address Sunday at Cardiocentro Ticino bounced back.