Anversa debacle vs. STAP cell train wreck & what’s next

mud pot animated gif

Remember when the Piero Anversa situation first made news or at least when you first heard about it?

In the public domain, it was back around April 2014. I didn’t even do a whole post on it, but rather it made two bullet points in a post about a set of bad overall news including the latest at the time on the growing mess from STAP cellsmud pot animated gif However, clearly there were concerns about this Anversa thing well before 2014. What took so long?

In my 2014 post here on The Niche, I mentioned a Circulation paper retraction and an expression of concern about a pub in The Lancet (Roberto Bolli, et al.). After 4.5 years even as Harvard/Brigham have now called for retraction of 31 Anversa-related papers, as far as I know The Lancet still hasn’t done anything further about that expression of concern-related 2011 pub, although apparently Harvard has provided the journal new information.

Bolli, the first author of the Lancet paper with Anversa that is in limbo, places the blame squarely on the Anversa lab according to the WaPo:

“Roberto Bolli, a cardiologist at the University of Louisville School of Medicine who is a co-author of the Lancet paper and the editor in chief of Circulation Research, in which Anversa frequently published, said he and his colleagues are “victims of this scientific misconduct in Anversa’s lab.”

“It would be unfair to us in Louisville if our reputation was tainted by what happened in Boston,” said Bolli, who said his lab administered the cells that were created and characterized by Anversa’s lab into patients. “We don’t know yet the extent to which it [the fabrication] impacted the characterization of the cell product that was used.”

For context, Bolli and Anversa have 22 papers together listed on PubMed over a 9 year period. I don’t know if any others of these 22 are in Harvard’s list of 31 they think should be retracted.

On the other hand, Anversa and/or his past lawsuit against Harvard seemed to have placed a lot of blame on a former colleagues Jan Kajstura and Annarosa Leri.

I don’t think most of us have a clear sense of what happened in the Anversa lab on these 31 papers.

Which is worse, STAP or the Anversa situation?

Take our poll to weigh in.

While the Anversa situation involves far more papers than the 2 Nature papers of the STAP debacle and is linked to at least one clinical trial, one could argue that in the end both situations will have done huge damage to many people and to science. STAP was related to one really tragic death, that of biologist Yoshiki Sasai.

In the bigger picture, it’s worthwhile to note that the STAP cell situation, involving Harvard/Brigham as well, was resolved relatively quickly, but not so with this ongoing heart stem cell publication mess.

What happens next with the newer mess?

As much as Harvard/Brigham have made the call for so many Anversa paper retractions, I expect at least some of the journals to not cooperate or at least not promptly. This is likely to drag on for more years. Anversa may file one or more new lawsuits too (or just try to move on). These are some of the types of factors that explain why these kinds of messes more generally often take so long to resolve.

How many other situations like this have been (and still are) bubbling under the surface like a mud pot for years? When do they boil to the surface? Some probably never do.


  1. VSELs are slow and steady. It has recently been possible to expand them in vitro. We recently showed that they undergo asymmetric cell divisions in several organs to give rise to tissue specific stem cells ‘progenitors’- NUMB is differentially expressed only in the tissue specific ‘progenitors’ (pubmed: 30051749 and pubmed: 30241552). They have also now been implicated in ovarian (pubmed: 26940129) and testicular (pubmed:30238242) tumors.

  2. The next big scandal in stem cell biology and cancer will involve Carlos Lopez-Otin. He has a record of over twenty papers with alleged copy-paste of bands for two decades, his Soria-Valles 2015 Nature Cell Biology is one of the most criticized paper by PubPeer, and the drama is still going on at a new paper with the same first author in George Daley lab. The whole issue has been covered by another blog.
    Things have been too dramatic, and still getting bigger and bigger.

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