He Promised to Restore Damaged Hearts. Harvard Says His Lab Fabricated Research.


For Dr. Piero Anversa, the fall from scientific grace has been long, and the landing hard.

Researchers worldwide once hailed his research as revolutionary, promising the seemingly impossible: a way to grow new heart cells to replace those lost in heart attacks and heart failure, leading killers in the United States.

But Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, his former employers, this month accused Dr. Anversa and his laboratory of extensive scientific malpractice. More than 30 research studies produced over more than a decade contain falsified or fabricated data, officials concluded, and should be retracted. Last year the hospital paid a $10 million settlement to the federal government after the Department of Justice alleged that Dr. Anversa and two members of his team were responsible for fraudulently obtaining research funding from the National Institutes of Health.

“The number of papers is extraordinary,” said Dr. Jeffrey Flier, until 2016 the dean of Harvard Medical School. “I can’t recall another case like this.”

Dr. Anversa’s story has laid bare some of the hazards of modern medical research: the temptation to embrace a promising new theory, the reluctance to heed contrary evidence and the institutional barriers to promptly stopping malfeasance. Even after three independent researchers were unable to reproduce his findings in 2004, Harvard hired him in 2007 and his lab continued to churn out studies upholding his theory.

“Science at this level is like a battleship, and it’s really hard to turn it around,” said Dr. Jonathan Moreno, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “People get emotionally invested, financially invested, professionally invested.”

Dr. Anversa, 80, now lives in his son’s elegant apartment on the Upper East Side. It has high ceilings, Oriental rugs and a marble fireplace, but little evidence of the life he once led at the forefront of science, save for a framed 2001 front page article in The New York Times about his work.

He is slightly stooped and walks gingerly — hip trouble, he said. The stress has made sleep difficult, but he adheres to a routine: in bed by 9 p.m., up before dawn. He spends most days writing grant proposals that he hopes to submit should he ever land another job.

He insists that he did nothing wrong, that his stunning results are real, and that he was betrayed by a rogue colleague who altered data in paper after paper. On a recent afternoon, he sat on the sofa, pecking on his laptop with two fingers, calling up emails from people who had supported him.

“I am an 80-year-old man who has worked all his life in an attempt to have an impact on heart failure,” Dr. Anversa said, his voice rising. “Now I am isolated.”

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