Falsified data. Scientific fraud. Millions of dollars in misappropriated funds. The scandal surrounding disgraced East Coast researcher Piero Anversa, MD, sounds, at times, like a movie script. Yet it’s all too real, and valid stem cell research brought the truth to light.
“I still struggle with the question: How could people do this?” says Charles E. Murry, MD, PhD, Res. ’92, a highly regarded stem cell researcher and a professor of pathology, cardiology and medicine at the UW School of Medicine.
In 2001, Anversa announced that bone marrow stem cells could regenerate heart muscle in mice. Caught up in stem cell enthusiasm, the scientific community wasn’t nearly as skeptical as it should have been. “The idea was flawed, the evidence was weak, and the exuberance was like nothing I’ve ever seen,” says Murry, the director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) at UW Medicine.
It took 13 years before the consequences began catching up to the field — and the retractions began. Anversa was fired, and his employer paid a $10 million settlement to the National Institutes of Health over fraudulently obtained research funding.
“They just flat-out cheated,” says Murry. “But in the end, you can’t fool nature.”
Although Anversa and his ideas have now been discredited, the field of stem cell research suffered a serious blow to its reputation. Even worse, though, is the time, effort and funding that was misdirected due to the deceptions. “It’s hard to know how much this slowed us down,” Murry says. “I might be five years ahead of where I am now — and that’s painful, if you think of the people we might have helped during that time.”
Today, Murry and other ISCRM researchers are working hard to rebuild public confidence. “Medicine is very special, because it’s built on so much trust,” says Murry. “When that trust is violated, the whole field breaks down. So what we’re doing now is trying to re-earn the public’s trust by showing them legitimate science.”
The potential of stem cells remains enormous. One exciting study, recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, found that using two different kinds of heart cells to rebuild heart muscle tissue improved regrowth. “We’d been trying to repair the heart using a single cell type, but adding the second cell type made much better heart muscle,” says Murry. “It gave better muscle regeneration, it made the connective tissue stronger, and it made many more blood vessels grow.” A phase I human clinical trial is anticipated to begin in early 2021.
Another promising area of research involves using a patient’s own stem cells and growing them in the lab to explore new therapies for genetic diseases. This disease-in-a-dish approach allows researchers to test thousands of drugs to see which are most effective against a disease.
Murry credits philanthropy — $50 million committed during UW Medicine’s multi-year Campaign, and generous foundational funding in previous years — for ISCRM’s success. He also values the Seattle approach. “There’s something special about the way science is done here,” he says. “We work together and form interdisciplinary teams that do more than an individual could do on their own. We’re less concerned with making our own reputation and more concerned with making a place where the next generation can step in. Science is like a big relay race, and we pass the baton.”
Rigorous work, tireless experiments and high-quality data may not make for fast results, but Murry’s group knows they’re doing it the right way. “This has to be painstaking work, and that takes a long time,” he says. For him, it’s worth the wait to see what the future holds.
“These cells are going to take us to all kinds of new places that humanity’s never been,” says Murry.