In search of cures for human heart disease, Steven Houser led his lab at Temple University to induce heart attacks in animals with similar sized organs: pigs. The scientist deemed the results so promising that samples of pig hearts were stored in a freezer at negative temperature, in boxes labeled with secret codes.
But when a colleague wanted some of the samples for his own experiments, Houser’s graduate student handed them over.
Houser says he never gave permission. The colleague, cardiologist Arthur Feldman, says yes.
The dispute is now the subject of a federal lawsuit, heightened by an investigation into possible misconduct over more than a dozen studies by scientists at the North Philadelphia institution. At its root is the professional pride and animosity between two eminent researchers – Feldman, former dean of Temple’s medical school, and Houser, former president of the American Heart Association.
Houser called Feldman “evil” and claims the pork samples and related data helped Feldman’s startup, called Renovacor, secure $11 million in first-round venture funding. Feldman, who denies any wrongdoing, accuses his colleague of greedy opportunism.
On Tuesday, a New Jersey company said it had agreed to buy Renovacor in a deal worth $53 million.
What is at stake is one of the thorniest challenges in medicine: unlike other muscles in the human body, the heart cannot repair itself by growing new cells. As a result, many heart attack victims, although they survive the initial attack, develop heart failure, one of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States.
For years, scientists have tried to solve this problem with stem cells, but some early promising signs have turned out to be illusory. In April 2017, a Harvard-affiliated health system agreed to pay $10 million to the US government to settle fraud allegations against Piero Anversa, a former researcher there accused of falsifying his stem cell results.
Harvard has investigated at least 30 studies conducted by Anversa and/or his colleagues, including some from other institutions. Houser was the lead author on one of the articles, as of 2010.
At issue was an image of mouse heart cells that seemed to Harvard officials as if it might have been fabricated, according to Houser’s lawsuit. Houser said he did nothing wrong and the image was not central to the study’s findings. However, after learning about the problem, he and his colleagues performed a new series of experiments, the images of which were accepted and published by the journal Circulation Research.
In 2019, Temple officials later told Houser they were launching their own investigation into the work, which remains unresolved, according to court records. And the following year, the school notified Houser that it was investigating potential misconduct in an additional series of articles he had authored, this time at the request of federal officials.
The claims typically involved similar concerns – images that appeared to have been fabricated or duplicated, making a drug look like it worked when it didn’t. The issues were first raised on pubpeer.com, a website that allows scientists to make anonymous reviews of research, and were recently the subject of a Reuters report.
Again, Houser says he did nothing wrong. In five of the newspapers he was only involved as an editor for a colleague who spoke English as a second language. In another article, an incorrect figure was used due to a “clerical error”, he said in the lawsuit.
According to Houser, the real reason for Temple’s investigations is that school officials sought to “slander” and intimidate him into dropping his complaints about the pork samples and related data, which his student graduate had delivered to Feldman’s lab in late 2014.
In the lawsuit, Houser accused then-dean Feldman of deliberately misleading the graduate student into handing him the materials. Houser says he never gave his permission and only learned of the existence of the exchange in 2017, when Feldman published an article based in part on the data.
False, Feldman said in his response to the lawsuit. Not only did Houser agree to share the pig material and data, but he also signed a related request for federal research funds. And Houser was offered the chance to buy shares in Feldman’s startup Renovacor, the cardiologist said in a recent Legal Deposit.
Houser declined the offer and sued years later, only when the company looked promising, Feldman alleged in his response.
“He thought the business would be for naught,” Feldman said of his longtime colleague. “Now that Renovacor has secured capital funding, it wants another bite of the apple.”
The former graduate student who shared pig material with Feldman’s lab did not respond to messages seeking comment. Now in another facility, he is not charged in the trial.
An attorney representing Feldman declined to comment on the case. Christopher Ezold, an attorney for Houser, said his client “did not engage in scientific or other misconduct, falsify data, or participate in any wrongdoing with any other scientist or scholar.” .
Temple officials declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond what his attorneys told the court. In an early spring legal filing, the school denied any wrongdoing and also denied that intellectual property had been “stolen” from Houser’s lab.
As for the inquiry into the validity of studies, university officials said the process is still ongoing.
“Temple is aware of allegations of research misconduct and is reviewing them in accordance with university policy and applicable regulations,” officials said.
Since then, three medical journals have launched their own investigations into six studies authored by Temple heart researchers, as Reuters first reported. Houser is among the authors of three of them, although he did not lead the research in question.
An ethics committee at one of the journals, called JACC: Basic to Translational Science, voted to retract one of the studies, citing images that appeared to have been pasted or duplicated.
The parties to the lawsuit agree on one thing: Feldman omitted Houser’s name from an earlier April 2015 article in which he included the results of additional experiments on pig samples.
When Houser realized the omission two years later and complained, Feldman said it was a mistake and apologized. He asked the editors of the journal Heart Failure Reviews if they could add Houser’s name, but they said it was too late, according to an email exchange included in the exhibits.
Informed of the outcome, Houser responded in a March 2017 email to Feldman:
“Thank you for trying Art. I understand how this could have happened inadvertently.
The cordiality did not last. After Houser’s name surfaced in the Harvard investigation, Feldman repeatedly told other faculty members that Houser was at fault and spread false rumors about the ensuing Temple investigation in 2019, Houser alleged.
Meanwhile, Renovacor, the company Feldman founded, after securing initial $11 million in funding in August 2019, prepared to go public.
It happened on September 3, 2021, which Feldman marked by ringing the opening bell for the New York Stock Exchange. The stock traded as high as $10.47 per share before losing steam earlier this year, falling below $2.
On Tuesday, when Cranbury, NJ-based Rocket Pharmaceuticals announced a deal to buy Renovacor, the stock rallied to $2.18 — a 14.7% gain — before losing most of that gain in a market bearish at the end of the week.
#Temple #scientists #fight #stolen #heart #research #claim #startup #sells #million