Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS/Newscom

$10 million settlement over alleged misconduct in Boston heart stem cell lab

A research misconduct investigation of a prominent stem cell lab by the Harvard University–affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston has led to a massive settlement with the U.S. government over allegations of fraudulently obtained federal grants. As Retraction Watch reports, BWH and its parent health care system have agreed to pay $10 million to resolve allegations that former BWH cardiac stem cell scientist Piero Anversa and former lab members Annarosa Leri and Jan Kajstura relied on manipulated and fabricated data in grant applications submitted to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

A statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts released today notes that it was BWH itself that shared the allegations against Anversa’s lab with the government. The hospital had been conducting its own probe into the Anversa lab since at least 2014, when a retraction published in the journal Circulation revealed the ongoing investigation. The hospital has not yet released any findings.

In 2014, Anversa and Leri sued Harvard and BWH—along with BWH President Elizabeth Nabel and Gretchen Brodnicki, Harvard’s dean for faculty and research integrity—for launching and publicizing the investigation that they claimed wrongfully damaged their careers. In their complaint, they acknowledged fabricated data in the Circulation paper and altered figures in a 2011 paper for which The Lancet has published an “expression of concern.” But they claimed that Kajstura had altered data without their knowledge. (Anversa and Leri’s recent papers list their institution as Swiss Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Retraction Watch notes.)

In July 2015, a federal district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs had to first air their grievances with the federal Office of Research Integrity, which handles misconduct investigations at NIH-funded labs.

Grant fraud cases against universities rarely involve research misconduct, and most are brought by whistleblowers who stand to claim a share of any returned funds. Despite the high penalty, BWH gets praise from the Department of Justice in today’s announcement “for self-disclosing the allegations … and for taking steps to prevent future recurrences of such conduct.”

But the result is confusing and potentially discouraging, says Ferric Fang, a microbiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has published several analyses of retractions, misconduct, and the scientific enterprise. “It sounds as if the researchers themselves were found to have engaged in improper practices, but the institution is on the hook for the settlement.” The decision “deserves greater clarification,” he says, or it “could discourage other institutions from being as forthcoming in the future.”