In search of cures for human heart disease, Steven Houser directed his Temple University lab to induce heart attacks in animals with organs of similar size: pigs. The scientist considered the results so promising that samples of the pig’s hearts were secured in a sub-zero freezer, in boxes labeled with secret codes.
But when a colleague wanted some of the samples for his own experiments, Houser’s graduate student handed them over.
Houser says he never gave permission. Colleague cardiologist Arthur Feldman says yes.
The dispute is now the subject of a federal lawsuit, exacerbated by an investigation into possible misconduct in more than a dozen studies conducted 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 new company, called Renovacor, land $11 million in first-round 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.
At issue is one of medicine’s most vexing challenges: unlike other muscles in the human body, the heart cannot repair itself by growing new cells. As a result, many heart attack victims, although they survive the initial crisis, develop heart failure, one of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States.
For years, scientists have tried to address this problem with stem cells, but some early signs of promise have proved 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 cell results mother
Harvard investigated at least 30 studies by Antwerp and/or his colleagues, some of them from other institutions. Houser was the lead author of one of the papers, from 2010.
It was an image of mouse heart cells that appeared to Harvard officials as if it could have been fabricated, according to Houser’s lawsuit. Houser said he did nothing wrong and that the image was not central to the study’s findings. However, upon learning of the concern, he and his colleagues conducted a new set of experiments, the images of which were accepted and published by the journal Circulation Research.
In 2019, Temple officials told Houser they were launching their own investigation into the play, which has yet to be resolved, according to court records. And the following year, the school notified Houser that it was investigating possible misconduct in an additional series of articles he authored, this time at the request of federal officials.
The complaints generally involved similar concerns: images that appeared to be fabricated or duplicated, giving the impression that a drug worked when it didn’t. First the problems were raised on pubpeer.com, a website that allows scientists to make anonymous critiques of research, and were recently the subject of a Reuters news report.
Again, Houser says he did nothing wrong. In five of the articles, he participated only as an editor for a colleague who spoke English as a second language. In another article, an incorrect figure was used due to a “clerical error,” the lawsuit said.
The real reason for Temple’s inquiries, Houser claims, is that school officials tried to “smear” and intimidate him into dropping his complaints about the pork samples and related data, which his undergraduate student had given to Feldman’s lab in late 2014.
In the lawsuit, Houser accused Feldman, then the dean, of deliberately tricking the graduate student into reading the material. Houser says he never gave permission and didn’t learn about the exchange until 2017, when Feldman published a paper based in part on the data.
Wrong, Feldman said in his response to the lawsuit. Not only did Houser agree to share the pig material and data, but also signed a related application for federal research funds. And Houser was offered the opportunity to buy stock in Feldman’s start-up, Renovacor, the cardiologist said in a recent legal presentation
Houser rejected the offer and filed suit years later, just when the company seemed promising, Feldman said in his response.
“He he thought the company would be nothing,” Feldman said of his longtime colleague. “Now that Renovacor has secured equity financing, he wants another bite at the apple.”
The former graduate student who shared pig material with Feldman’s lab did not respond to messages seeking comment. Now in another institution, he is not accused in the lawsuit.
An attorney representing Feldman declined to comment on the case. Christopher Ezold, Houser’s lawyer, said his client “has not engaged in scientific or other misconduct, has not falsified data, and has not engaged in any wrongdoing with any other scientist or academic.”
Temple officials declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond what their lawyers have said in court. In a legal filing earlier this spring, the school denied any wrongdoing and also denied that the intellectual property was “stolen” from Houser’s lab.
Regarding the investigation of the validity of studies, university officials said that the process was still underway.
“Temple is aware of the allegations of investigative misconduct and is reviewing them in accordance with university policy and applicable regulations,” officials said.
Since then, three medical journals have released their own investigations into six studies written by Temple heart researchers, as first reported by Reuters. Houser is among the authors of three of them, although he did not lead the research in question.
An ethics board for one of the journals, called JACC: Basic to Translational Science, has 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 with 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 exhibits.
Told of the result, Houser responded in a March 2017 email to Feldman:
“Thanks for trying Art. I understand how this could have happened unintentionally.”
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 ensuing Temple investigation in 2019, Houser alleged.
Meanwhile, Renovacor, the company founded by Feldman, after securing $11 million in seed funding in August 2019, was preparing 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 to below $2.
On Tuesday, when Cranbury, NJ-based Rocket Pharmaceuticals announced a deal to buy Renovacor, the stock rebounded to $2.18, a 14.7% gain, before losing most of that profit in a down market at the end of the week.