Temple University scientists are fighting in court over allegedly stolen heart research

Searching for cures for human heart disease, Steven Houser directed his Temple University lab to induce heart attacks in animals with similarly sized organs: pigs. The scientist considered the results so promising that the samples of the pigs’ hearts were kept in a freezer below zero, in boxes labeled with secret codes.

But when a colleague wanted some of the samples for his own experiments, Houser’s graduate student gave them to him.

Houser says he never gave permission. The colleague, cardiologist Arthur Feldman, says yes.

The dispute is now the subject of a federal lawsuit, compounded by an investigation into possible misconduct in more than a dozen studies by scientists at the North Philadelphia institution. At the root is professional pride and animosity between two prominent researchers: Feldman, a former dean of Temple’s medical school, and Houser, a former president of the American Heart Association.

Houser has called Feldman “evil” and says the pig samples and related data helped Feldman’s startup, called Renovacor, raise $11 million in the first round of venture capital 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.

The problem is one of the most perplexing 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, though surviving the initial crisis, go on to develop heart failure, a leading cause of death and disability in the US.

For years, scientists tried to tackle this problem with stem cells, but some of the early promising signs turned out to be delusional. In April 2017, a Harvard-affiliated health system agreed to pay the US government $10 million to settle fraud allegations against Piero Anversa, a former researcher there accused of falsifying his stem cell results. .

Harvard investigated at least 30 studies by Anversa and/or his colleagues, some of them from other institutions. Houser was the lead author on one of the papers, from 2010.

At issue was an image of mouse heart cells that Harvard officials thought might have been fabricated, according to Houser’s lawsuit. Houser said he did nothing wrong and that the image was not critical to the study’s conclusions. However, learning of the concern, he and his colleagues conducted a new series of experiments, the images of which were accepted and published by the journal Circulation Research.

In 2019, Houser was told by Temple officials that they were launching their own investigation into the work, which has yet to be resolved, according to court records. And the following year, the school notified Houser that he was investigating possible misconduct in an additional set of documents he authored, this time at the request of federal officials.

The allegations generally involved similar concerns: images that appeared to be fabricated or duplicated, giving the impression that a drug was working when it wasn’t. Problems first raised on pubpeer.com, a website that allows scientists to provide anonymous critiques of research, and were recently the subject of a Reuters news report.

Once again, Houser says that he did nothing wrong. In five of the papers, he was simply involved as editor for a colleague who spoke English as a second language. In another document, he used an incorrect figure due to a “clerical error,” he said in the lawsuit.

The real reason for Temple’s investigations, Houser contends, is that school officials tried to “smear” him and intimidate him into dropping his complaints about the pig samples and related data, which his graduate student had provided to the lab. from Feldman in late 2014.

In the lawsuit, Houser accused Feldman, then the dean, of deliberately misleading the graduate student into handing over the material. Houser says he never gave permission and that he didn’t find out about the exchange until 2017, when Feldman published an article based in part on the data.

Wrong, Feldman said in his response to the lawsuit. Houser not only agreed to share the pig material and data, but also he also signed a related application for federal research funds. and Houser offered him the opportunity to buy shares in Feldman’s new company, Renovacor, the cardiologist said in a recent legal filing.

Houser turned down the offer and filed suit years later, only when the company looked promising, Feldman alleged in his response.

“The I thought the company would be nothing,” Feldman said of his longtime colleague. “Now that Renovacor has secured equity financing, 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 at another institution, he is not charged in the lawsuit.

An attorney representing Feldman declined to comment on the case. Christopher Ezold, Houser’s attorney, said his client “has not engaged in scientific or other misconduct, has not falsified data, and has not engaged in any misconduct with any other scientist or scholar.”

Temple officials declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond what their lawyers said in court. In a legal filing earlier this spring, the school denied any wrongdoing and also denied that intellectual property was “stolen” from Houser’s lab.

Regarding the research on the validity of studies, university officials said the process was still underway.

“Temple is aware of the allegations of research misconduct and is reviewing them in accordance with university policy and applicable regulations,” the officials said.

Since then, three medical journals have released their own investigations into six studies authored by Temple heart researchers, Reuters first reported. Houser is among the authors of three of them, although he did not lead the investigation in question.

An ethics board 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 spliced ​​or duplicated.

The parties to the lawsuit agree on one thing: Feldman omitted Houser’s name from an earlier April 2015 article that included the results of additional experiments on pig samples.

When Houser noticed 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 court evidence.

Upon learning of the result, 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 came up in the Harvard investigation, Feldman repeatedly told other faculty members that Houser was to blame and spread false rumors about the Temple investigation that followed in 2019, Houser alleged.

Meanwhile, Renovacor, the company founded by Feldman, after securing the $11 million in seed financing in August 2019, prepared to go public.

That happened on September 3, 2021, which Feldman marked by ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. The stock traded as high as $10.47 a share before losing steam earlier this year, falling below $2.

On Tuesday, when Cranbury, NJ-based Rocket Pharmaceuticals announced an agreement to buy Renovacor, the shares rose again to $2.18, a 14.7% gain, before losing most of that gain in a bear market at the end of the week.

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