Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Overturned? Research suggesting a rapid turnover rate for heart muscle cells (above) has been pulled.

Overturned? Research suggesting a rapid turnover rate for heart muscle cells (above) has been pulled.

Anversa et al., Circulation 126, 15 (9 October 2012)

Updated: Cardiology Paper Retracted as Harvard Investigates 'Compromised' Data

A 2012 paper on the regenerative powers of the human heart has been retracted from the journal Circulation amid an investigation of compromised data. The American Heart Association, which publishes the journal, issued an 8 April retraction for the paper, whose corresponding author  was Piero Anversa, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The retraction states that “an ongoing institutional review by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital has determined that the data are sufficiently compromised that a retraction is warranted.”

Another author is Circulation’s editor-in-chief, Joseph Loscalzo, who is chair of Brigham’s Department of Medicine. The journal received a letter late last week from Harvard University’s dean for faculty and research integrity calling for the retraction, Rose Marie Robertson, chief science and medical officer at the American Heart Association, tells ScienceInsider. She said the letter mentioned problems with the data in several of the paper’s figures. A Brigham representative declined to give any details about the ongoing review. Robertson said that, based on Harvard’s letter, she has no concerns about Loscalzo’s role in the paper and that he recused himself from both the review process and the retraction.

*Harvard and Brigham have sent a second letter raising concerns about another paper involving Anversa, this one published in The Lancet. See update below for more.

The paper is one in a series from Anversa’s group defending the contentious idea that the human heart rapidly regenerates muscle cells, and that this regeneration increases with age. Some have questioned whether heart muscle cells can be renewed in adulthood at all. A 2009 Science paper led by researchers in Sweden used a new technique to estimate that the cells are renewed at a rate of roughly 1% per year in 25-year-olds, declining to .45% per year in 75-year-olds. But Anversa and colleagues challenged those estimates in the 2012 paper and others, claiming that the renewal is much more dramatic—7% per year in 20- to 40-year-olds—and that this rate increases with age, to as much as 19% in 80-year-olds.

“They have been rather lonesome with that viewpoint,” says Jonas Frisén, a stem cell researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who led the 2009 work. He and his colleagues measured the age of heart muscle cells by matching the amount of carbon-14 in their DNA to the carbon-14 in the atmosphere at the time they were formed. Anversa’s group used that technique, among others, in the 2012 Circulation paper, and Frisén says he contacted the group to figure out why their two efforts had reached such different conclusions.

After the authors shared more data, Frisén says he began to suspect that the samples used by Anversa’s group had been contaminated with other sources of carbon, such as that in the cells’ proteins or in chemicals used for the reactions. He also raised other concerns about how the data had been treated. Anversa did not respond to a request from ScienceInsider for comment.

*Update, 11 April, 4:57 p.m.: Harvard and Brigham have sent another letter raising concerns about Anversa’s work, this one about high-profile clinical trial results published in The Lancet. On 11 April, the journal issued an “Expression of Concern” about the paper, on which Anversa is last author. It quotes the Harvard-Brigham letter saying that the medical school and hospital “are reviewing concerns about the integrity of certain data generated in a laboratory at BWH,” and adds: “The focus of this investigation is on two supplemental figures published online (figures 2A and 3). As far as we are aware, the investigation is confined to the work completed at BWH.”

When the paper was published in November 2011, it was heralded as the first study in humans to test cardiac stem cell therapy to combat heart failure. The authors reported an improved ability to pump blood and a decrease in the amount of dead cardiac tissue in patients with severe heart failure after an infusion of stem cells.

The letter of concern to The Lancet was first reported by Retraction Watch.