While searching for a cure for human heart disease, Steven Houser instructed his lab at Temple University to induce heart attacks in animals with similarly sized organs: pigs. The scientist found the results so promising that samples of the pig hearts were stored in a freezer, in boxes marked 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. Colleague Arthur Feldman, a cardiologist, says he did.
The dispute is now the subject of a federal lawsuit, compounded by an investigation into possible misconduct by scientists at the North Philadelphia Institution in more than a dozen studies. At the root lies professional pride and animosity between two prominent researchers — Feldman, a former dean of Temple Medical School, and Houser, a former president of the American Heart Association.
Houser has called Feldman “evil” and says the pig samples and associated data helped Feldman’s start-up company, called Renovacor, secure $11 million in first-round venture capital funding. Feldman, who denies any wrongdoing, blames his colleague of greedy opportunism.
On Tuesday, a New Jersey firm announced that it had agreed to buy Renovacor in a $53 million deal.
It is about one of the greatest challenges in medicine: unlike other muscles in the human body, the heart cannot repair itself by forming new cells. As a result, many heart attack victims, although surviving the initial crisis, go on to develop heart failure, a leading cause of death and disability in the United States
For years, scientists have tried to tackle this problem with stem cells, but some early signs of promise turned out to be illusory. 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, who was accused of falsifying his stem cell results.
Harvard reviewed at least 30 studies conducted by Anversa and/or his colleagues, some from other institutions. Houser was the senior author of one of the papers as of 2010.
It involved an image of mouse heart cells that, according to Houser’s lawsuit, appeared to Harvard officials as if it had been fabricated. Houser said he did nothing wrong and that the image was not central to the study’s conclusions. However, upon 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.
Then, in 2019, Temple officials told Houser they would launch their own investigation into the work, which court records say is still unresolved. And the following year, the school told Houser it was investigating possible wrongdoing in another series of papers in which he was an author, this time at the request of federal officials.
The allegations generally concerned similar concerns – images that appeared to be fabricated or copied, giving the impression that a drug was working when it wasn’t. The issues were addressed first on pubpeer.com, a website that allows researchers to anonymously provide research critiques, and were the subject of a recent Reuters news report.
Again, Houser says he did nothing wrong. At five of the newspapers he was only involved as an editor for a colleague who spoke English as a second language. In another paper, an incorrect number was used due to a “typographical error,” he said in the lawsuit.
The real reason for the Temple investigation, Houser said, was that school officials were trying to “slander” and intimidate him into dropping his complaints about the pig samples and related data his graduate student gave to Feldman’s lab in late 2014 let.
In the lawsuit, Houser accused Feldman, the then dean, of intentionally enticing one of Houser’s graduate students to turn over the material. Houser says he never gave permission and only found out about the exchange in 2017, when Feldman published a paper based in part on the data.
Wrong, Feldman said in his response to the lawsuit. Houser not only agreed to share the pig footage and data, but he also signed a corresponding application for federal research funds. And Houser was offered an opportunity to acquire shares in Feldman’s startup Renovacor, the cardiologist said in a recent statement legal filing.
Houser turned down the offer and filed the lawsuit years later, only when the company seemed promising, Feldman claimed in his response.
“He thought the company didn’t mean anything,” Feldman said of his longtime colleague. “Now that Renovacor has received equity financing, it wants to bite the apple again.”
The former graduate student, who shared pig footage with Feldman’s lab, did not respond to messages asking for comment. Now at another institution, he is not charged in the lawsuit.
An attorney representing Feldman declined to comment on the case. Christopher Ezold, an attorney for Houser, said his client “did not commit any scientific or other misconduct, falsified data, or engage in bad dealings with other scientists or academics.”
Temple officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, which goes beyond what their attorneys said in court. In a lawsuit earlier this spring, the school denied any wrongdoing and also denied that intellectual property was “stolen” from Houser’s lab.
As for the study of the validity of the studies, university officials said, the process is still ongoing.
“Temple is aware of the allegations of research misconduct and is investigating 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, Reuters first reported. Houser is among the authors of three of them, although he did not direct the research in question.
An ethics committee for one of the journals, called JACC: Basic to Translational Science, voted to retract one of the studies and cite images that appear to have been spliced or duplicated.
The parties to the lawsuit agree on one point: Feldman omitted Houser’s name from an earlier April 2015 paper in which he included the results of additional experiments on the pig samples.
When Houser noticed the omission two years later and complained, Feldman said it was a mistake and apologized. He asked editors of Heart Failure Reviews magazine if they could add Houser’s name, but they said it was too late, according to an email exchange contained in court filings.
Learning of the result, Houser replied to Feldman in a March 2017 email:
“Thanks for trying Art. I understand how that could have happened accidentally.”
The warmth didn’t last. After Houser’s name surfaced in the Harvard Inquiry, Feldman repeatedly told other faculty members that Houser was to blame and spread false rumors about the subsequent Temple Inquiry in 2019, Houser claimed.
Meanwhile, Renovacor, the company Feldman founded, prepared to go public after securing $11 million in initial funding in August 2019.
That happened on September 3, 2021, which Feldman marked with the ringing of the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock traded as low as $10.47 a share before losing momentum and falling below $2 earlier this year.
But since Tuesday, when Cranbury, NJ-based Rocket Pharmaceuticals announced an agreement to buy Renovacor, the stock has risen to $2.04, up 7.4%.