In a search for cures for human heart disease, Steven Houser instructed his Temple University lab to induce heart attacks in animals with organs of a similar size: pigs. The scientist assessed the results as so promising that samples from pig hearts were stored in a freezer at a temperature below freezing, in boxes marked with secret codes.
But when a colleague wanted some samples for his own experiments, Houser’s PhD student donated them.
Houser says he never gave permission. A colleague, cardiologist Arthur Feldman, says yes.
The dispute is now subject to a federal lawsuit, coupled with an investigation into possible misconduct in more than a dozen studies by scientists at institutions in North Philadelphia. At the heart of it is professional pride and animosity between two eminent scientists – Feldman, the former dean of Temple Medical School, and Houser, former president of the American Heart Association.
Houser called Feldman “bad” and says the pig samples and related data helped Feldman’s start-up company Renovacor secure $ 11 million in venture capital financing in the first round. Feldman, who denies any wrongdoing, accuses his colleague greedy opportunism.
On Tuesday, the New Jersey-based firm said it had agreed to buy Renovacor for $ 53 million.
This is one of the most vexing challenges in medicine: unlike other muscles in the human body, the heart cannot repair itself by growing new cells. As a result, many victims of heart attacks, despite having survived the initial crisis, develop heart failure, the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S.
For years, scientists have tried to solve this problem with stem cells, but some of the early signs of promise have proved to be illusory. In April 2017, the Harvard-related health care system agreed to pay the U.S. government $ 10 million to settle fraud charges against Piero Anversa, a former researcher who was accused of falsifying results obtained on stem cells.
Harvard analyzed at least 30 studies conducted by Anversa and / or his colleagues, some of them from other institutions. Houser was the senior author of one of the articles, as of 2010.
The issue was an image of mouse heart cells, which Harvard officials said looked like it could have been fabricated, according to Houser’s lawsuit. Houser said he had done nothing wrong and that the image was not a major component of the study’s conclusions. However, having learned about the problem, he and his colleagues conducted a new set of experiments, the images of which were approved and published by Circulation Research.
In 2019, Temple officials told Houser that they were starting their own labor investigation, which court records still have pending. The following year, the school notified Houser that it was investigating possible misconduct in an additional series of articles he had written, this time at the request of federal officials.
The allegations generally related to a similar concern – images that appeared to be fabricated or reproduced, giving the impression that the drug was working when it was not. The issues were raised for the first time on pubpeer.com, a website that allows researchers to anonymously criticize research and has recently been the subject of a Reuters report.
Again Houser says he didn’t do anything wrong. In five of them, he was only involved as an editor for a colleague who spoke English as a second language. Another article used the wrong number due to a “clerical error,” he said in the lawsuit.
The real reason behind the inquiries at the Temple, says Houser, is that school officials tried to “slander” and intimidate him into ditching his complaints about pig samples and related data his graduate reported to Feldman’s lab in late 2014.
In the lawsuit, Houser accused Feldman, the then dean, of deliberately misleading the graduate student into the transfer of the material. Houser says he never gave permission, and he didn’t find out about the exchange until 2017, when Feldman published an article that relied in part on the data.
Wrong, Feldman said in response to the lawsuit. Houser not only agreed to share material and data on pigs, but also signed a related application for federal research funds. And Houser has been given a chance to buy a stake in Feldman’s startup Renovacor, a cardiologist said recently legal notification.
Houser rejected the offer and filed a lawsuit many years later, only when the company seemed promising, Feldman stated in his response.
“He he thought the company would do nothing, “Feldman said of his longtime colleague. “Now that Renovacor has obtained equity financing, he wants to bite the apple again.”
The former PhD student who shared the pig material in Feldman’s laboratory did not reply to messages asking for a comment. Now, in another institution, he is not being charged in the trial.
Feldman’s attorney declined to comment on the case. Christopher Ezold, a Houser lawyer, said his client “did not engage in scientific or other misconduct, did not falsify data, and did not engage in any misconduct with any other scientist or scientist.”
Temple officials declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond what her attorneys in court had said. In a legal filing in early spring, the school denied any wrongdoing and also denied that intellectual property was “stolen” from Houser’s lab.
As for the validity investigation research, university officials said the trial was still ongoing.
“Temple is aware of allegations of inadequate research and is reviewing it in accordance with university policy and applicable regulations,” officials said.
Since then, three medical journals have begun their own study of six studies by Temple heart researchers, as first reported by Reuters. Houser is one of the authors of three of them, although he has not led the research in question.
One journal’s ethics board, called JACC: Basic to Translational Science, voted to withdraw one of the studies, citing images that appeared to be intertwined or duplicated.
The parties to the trial agree on one thing: Feldman omitted Houser’s name in an earlier April 2015 article in which he included the results of additional experiments on pig samples.
When Houser found out about the omission two years later and filed a complaint, Feldman said it was a mistake and apologized. He asked the editors of 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 forensic exhibits.
Upon learning of the result, Houser replied in a March 2017 email to Feldman:
“Thank you for trying out art. I understand how it could have happened unintentionally. “
Cordiality did not last long. After Houser’s name appeared in the Harvard investigation, Feldman repeatedly told other faculty members that Houser was guilty and spread false rumors about the 2019 Temple investigation, Houser said.
Meanwhile, Renovacor, the company founded by Feldman, after securing $ 11 million in initial funding in August 2019, prepared to go public.
This happened on September 3, 2021, which Feldman noted when he rang the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares traded at $ 10.47 per share before slowing down earlier this year to below $ 2.
On Tuesday, when Cranbury, NJ-based Rocket Pharmaceuticals announced its deal to buy Renovacor, the stock surged back to $ 2.18 – up 14.7% – before losing most of that profit in a downtrend at the end of the week .