Judge dismisses cardiac stem cell researchers’ lawsuit against Harvard

Piero Anversa
Piero Anversa

A Massachusetts judge has dismissed a lawsuit by researchers who argued that an investigation by Harvard cost them job offers.

Last year, Piero Anversa, a stem cell researcher at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and a colleague, Annarosa Leri, sued Harvard over an investigation into their work that they claim damaged their reputations:

As a result of the inquiry and investigation process, Plaintiffs allege that their reputations have been damaged; they lost a multimillion-dollar offer to purchase their company, Autologous/Progenital; and both Plaintiffs have had possible employment offers at several institutions postponed.

The team has had a 2012 paper in Circulation retracted, and a paper in The Lancet subject to an expression of concern. Another paper in Circulation Research was corrected in 2014. A former research fellow in the lab described the atmosphere as filled with braggadocio, information control, and fear.

The defendants — who included Gretchen Brodnicki, the dean for faculty and research integrity, and Elizabeth Nabel, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital — had asked for all of the claims to be dismissed. In a document dated July 27, district court judge Denise J. Casper agreed, noting:

the Court will dismiss a pleading that fails to plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”

The document details some background on Anversa and Leri’s allegations, for example that an inquiry panel convened to look into allegations of misconduct failed to do so within the deadline:

In this case, however, the inquiry panel did not meet the 60-day deadline, issuing the final inquiry report on February 28, 2014, more than a year after Anversa and Leri were notified of the inquiry.  The delay was exacerbated because the inquiry panel met only once a month and then took over two months to write draft reports and recommendations, even though Anversa and Leri’s attorneys notified the panel on two occasions that the delay was causing unjustified damage to their professional reputations.

The panel’s conclusions:

Ultimately, the inquiry panel recommended: (1) that the Lancet paper and the 2012 Circulation paper be retracted; (2) that the inquiry should proceed to an investigation; and (3) that there should be an evaluation of whether the Bingham laboratory was an appropriate environment for trainees. Although the inquiry panel found substantial evidence that [first author Jan Kajstura] may have committed research misconduct acting alone, the panel nevertheless recommended that the inquiry proceed to an investigation against Anversa and Leri on the theory that they negligently failed to investigate Kajstura’s misconduct.

Anversa and Leri disagreed with these conclusions:

Anversa and Leri allege that the inquiry panel’s reports were riddled with legal and factual errors.

Once the investigation was underway, Anversa and Leri objected to the makeup of the panel, saying the first members “are not experts in the relevant scientific areas,” and another member was on the scientific advisory board of a competing company.

The investigation was delayed to “accommodate additional allegations and to pursue all issues,” to which the plaintiffs also objected:

The most recent deadline was June 30, 2015. Since all of the papers cited in the new allegations were published before the investigation began in February 2014, however, Plaintiffs allege that “[t]here is no justification for expanding the investigation to encompass these additional papers at this late stage.”

Anversa and Leri were upset when Brodnicki tipped off the journals to the investigation:

In this case, however, members of the scientific community and the media, who did not need to know, learned about the inquiry and the investigation due to the disclosures of Defendants. For example, on March 25, 2014, Dean Brodnicki notified journals The Lancet and Circulation of the ongoing investigation and recommended retracting certain papers….After receiving Brodnicki’s notification, Circulation issued a retraction and The Lancet issued an expression of concern. The journals’ actions were widely reported in the media and Anversa was specifically identified as a co-author of the papers.  In contrast, Kajstura was not identified in any media reports as the individual accused of actually falsifying or fabricating data.

They also alleged that Nabel said more than she should have:

Defendant Nabel also disclosed information regarding the investigation. Nabel encouraged Circulation’s editor-in-chief to retract the paper and implied to him that Anversa and Leri had personally committed research misconduct. Nabel also disclosed information about the investigation to members of the Brigham laboratory, implying that there was a problem with the mentorship provided by Anversa and Leri.

However, the defendants asked Judge Casper to dismiss the plaintiff’s allegations, citing “administrative exhaustion”:

All Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have failed to exhaust administrative remedies. Specifically, Defendants argue that the Court lacks jurisdiction under both the statutory and common law principles of administrative exhaustion.

There’s a lot of legalese in the document (which you can read in full here), but it appears as if Judge Casper agreed:

Accordingly, the Court concludes that it lacks jurisdiction under both the statutory and common law principles of administrative exhaustion.

We’ve contacted Brodnicki, Anversa and Leri, and will update with any response.

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7 thoughts on “Judge dismisses cardiac stem cell researchers’ lawsuit against Harvard”

  1. “Another paper in Circulation was corrected in 2014.” Don’t you mean Circulation Research?
    Piero Anversa and Annarosa Leri first from last and second from last authors on paper under scruntiny at Pubpeer.

    Circ Res. 2011 Jun 10;108(12):1467-81. doi: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.111.240648. Epub 2011 May 5.
    4 comments on PubPeer
    Insulin-like growth factor-1 receptor identifies a pool of human cardiac stem cells with superior therapeutic potential for myocardial regeneration.
    D’Amario D1, Cabral-Da-Silva MC, Zheng H, Fiorini C, Goichberg P, Steadman E, Ferreira-Martins J, Sanada F, Piccoli M, Cappetta D, D’Alessandro DA, Michler RE, Hosoda T, Anastasia L, Rota M, Leri A, Anversa P, Kajstura J.
    Author information
    1Department of Anesthesia, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.
    Erratum in
    Circ Res. 2014 Dec 5;115(12):e94.

  2. There’s a lot of legalese in the document….

    The short story* is that plaintiffs had failed to exhaust administrative remedies and also failed to demonstrate that these would be futile (as alleged), so there’s no federal court jurisdiction.

    They can always do it over once they figure out how not to jump the gun, which won’t be as showy.

    * Reminder: IANAL, but I do have decent references on this front.

    1. Interesting to compare with the Kumar V GWU case which seems a bit further along, at least in terms of GWU having actually taken some actions against Kumar after finding evidence of misconduct (but like the Anversa case, there is still no final determination from ORI). Do you anticipate a similar outcome in the Kumar case?

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