Heart of the Matter

Heart cell transplant rejections


The concept that cell transplantation is the answer to the treatment of heart failure may have suffered a major setback as a result of a research scam perpetrated at Harvard University’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Sidney Goldstein is professor of medicine at Wayne State University and the division head emeritus of cardiovascular medicine at Henry Ford Hospital, both in Detroit.

Dr. Sidney Goldstein

The fraudulent cardiac research at that institution was from the lab of Piero Anversa, MD, which falsified or fabricated data. Dr. Anversa was one of the leaders in pursuing the concept that adult cardiomyocytes can not only regenerate by cell division but can also be transplanted from one animal to another, in his case a mouse.

The original reports over a decade ago caused a major stir in heart failure research. They also were met with considerable skepticism in the research field and have not been reproduced in other laboratories. Numerous small trials in humans have been unsuccessful in demonstrating the survival of autologous cells transplanted in both animal and humans. Dr. Anversa’s research has been under scrutiny by Harvard and Brigham and Women’s since 2013, ultimately resulting in the call to retract 31 published studies in mid-October. In the meantime, admission of fraud in regard to the original Anversa papers resulted in a fine of $10 million paid by the institutions to the National Institutes of Health in a 2017 settlement. Dr. Anversa left Harvard in 2015.

Nevertheless Dr. Anversa’s concepts led to the initiation of an NIH-supported multicenter trial in humans of the implantation of autologous bone marrow cells using endocardial devices to transplant cells in 144 patients with heart failure. The Combination of Autologous Bone Marrow Derived Mesenchymal and C-Kit+ Cardiac Stem Cells as Regenerative Therapy for Heart Failure (CONCERT-HF) was started in 2015 and was still recruiting until Oct. 29, when the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute announced that a pause in recruitment was called in order to review the fraudulent data that led to the trial’s initiation. Patients were to be followed over a 1-year period using delayed-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (DEMRI) scans to assess scar size and left ventricular function and structure at baseline and at 6 and 12 months post study product ad-ministration. For the purpose of the endpoint analysis and safety evaluations, the investigators planned to use an intention-to-treat study population evaluating a number of clinical parameters.

Anatomists and physiologists have long been of the opinion that adult human and mammalian cardiomyocytes are terminally differentiated and do not undergo cell division. However, over time, cardiomyocytes can undergo hypertrophy as a result of increased workload. Cells can die as a result of ischemia, infarction, or stress mediated through unchecked inflammatory processes. It also has been shown that cells can die as a result of apoptosis, particularly in areas in proximity to myocardial scars. It is generally believed that these three methods of cell depletion contribute to the progression of heart failure. Dr. Anversa also proposed that there is some degree of replication of cardiomyocytes but not to a degree that can have a meaningful replacement value.

The concept of cell transplantation in medicine certainly has been in the forefront of clinical research in medicine for the last decade based in part on research by Dr. Anversa and others in cardiology and numerous investigators in other medical disciplines. With few exceptions, there has been little support for the clinical benefit of these clinical studies. We are unfortunately now faced with the release of the tainted fraudulent research that led to CONCERT-HF. Whether there is anything of scientific value to come of the trial is highly unlikely.

Dr. Goldstein, medical editor of Cardiology News, is professor of medicine at Wayne State University and division head emeritus of cardiovascular medicine at Henry Ford Hospital, both in Detroit. He is on data safety monitoring committees for the National Institutes of Health and several pharmaceutical companies.

This article was updated Oct. 30, 2018.

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