This action-adventure is stuffed with digital special effects and stars Steven Houser, cardiology researcher, senior associate dean of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, USA. Temple of Fraud is where the CGI action takes place, in fact this is the fourth Temple feature on my site. Supporting character is Houser’s former postdoc and now full professor at same medical school, Abdelkarim Sabri, originally from France. The female star is Sabri’s former postdoc and now professor of her own (at the neighbouring Jefferson University), Khadija Rafiq. Grab popcorn, curtains up, the show with fake western blots begins!
One ironical aspect is that Houser is in charge of the research integrity at his Temple medical faculty, he was in fact the person I previously notified regarding other cases: those of Domenico Pratico and Mariusz Wasik. Houser is surely also aware of the case of Antonio Giordano whose Sbarro Pizza Institute is affiliated with the Temple medicine. Needless to say, Houser never replied to me, and also needless is to philosophise whether he ever felt bothered about all that data fakery happening on his watch. Because a fish always stinks from the head, and Houser’s own research is stinky. In fact, it stinks in third generation already.
The story’s other ironic aspect is: Houser pretends to be a brave hero of research ethics. A paper was once published by Houser and Sabri, Smith et al Circulation Research 2015, titled: GDF11 Does Not Rescue Aging-Related Pathological Hypertrophy. It debunked the work of none other but one of the biggest stars of regenerative medicine, the Harvard professor Amy Wagers. This protegee of the mighty Irving Weissman is known for her “young blood rejuvenation” parabiosis discoveries, where GDF11 was shown to be a key factor of turning old mice young, the work was done in collaboration with her Harvard colleague Richard Lee. Many scientists have criticised this GDF11 research, even the FDA brought the hammer down, Wagers also had to retract two papers, one in Nature, one in Blood, while her postdoc took the full blame.
2015 was a big year for Houser, the apex of his power: he was elected president of world’s most influential cardiology society, the American Heart Association. Maybe this is why Houser and Sabri also decided to jump onto the Wager-bashing bandwagon, maybe they did not expect that she will come out on top at the end, and continue with papers in big journals and invited talks at stem cell conferences. Maybe Houser was genuinely concerned about research ethics, everything is possible. A PubPeer user described the Smith et al 2015 paper:
“This is an outstanding study. Finally a group who is not afraid of challenging the false stories behind the GDF11 hype by Lee and Wagers.”
Thing is, that even in the same journal, Houser and Sabri published what looks like some seriously falsified data. The fraud debunkers get debunked themselves now. The evidence of data manipulation was largely documented on PubPeer by Clare Francis, who arrived at Sabri and Houser via Rafiq, the former postdoc from their lab.
Let’s start with an older paper featuring all three generations, and which also includes Louis Dell’Italia from the University of Alabama in Birmingham, who is coauthor on several problematic papers by Houser, Sabri and Rafiq. As all others, this study is about cardiology, apparently the idea is that Photoshop gymnastics can help patients. Look, there is so much gel band pleiotropy going on in this join work by Sabri and Houser:
Mikhail A. Kolpakov, Rachid Seqqat , Khadija Rafiq, Hang Xi , Kennneth B. Margulies, Joseph R. Libonati, Pamela Powel, Steven R. Houser, Louis J. Dell’italia, Abdelkarim Sabri Pleiotropic effects of neutrophils on myocyte apoptosis and left ventricular remodeling during early volume overload Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology (2009) doi: 10.1016/j.yjmcc.2009.08.016
Those are copy-pasted bands, western blot results generated in Photoshop, the highlighted problems should be quite clear even for those biomedical scientists who happen to be drunk or asleep. And yet the Editor-in-Chief of that journal, Michael Regnier, bioengineering professor at University of Washington, was confused by the visual evidence in Clare Francis’ emails. He forwarded the email to a colleague with Clare Francis in cc and wrote:
“have gotten 7 of these emails – all for different papers. I am not sure what this is in regards to“
Here my suggestion, Professor Regnier: issue a correction to clarify that the conclusions are not affected. Look, other editors did that: this 2020 paper was flagged on PubPeer right when it was published, and was fixed with a correction immediately.
Xinji Guo, Mikhail A. Kolpakov, Bahman Hooshdaran, William Schappell, Tao Wang, Satoru Eguchi, Katherine J. Elliott, Douglas G. Tilley, A. Koneti Rao, Patricia Andrade-Gordon, Matthew Bunce, Chintala Madhu, Steven R. Houser, Abdelkarim Sabri Cardiac Expression of Factor X Mediates Cardiac Hypertrophy and Fibrosis in Pressure Overload JACC Basic to Translational Science (2020) doi: 10.1016/j.jacbts.2019.10.006
The splicing actually means someone was unhappy about the experimental result and replaced it with a more suitable one. And how one can “mistakenly” confuse an GAPD blot for ERK2 from a different experiment while cropping it, is a Temple mystery. Here another correction, recently issued in Circulation Research for a Houser paper without Sabri:
Sadia Mohsin, Constantine D. Troupes, Timothy Starosta, Thomas E. Sharp, Elorm J. Agra, Shavonn Smith, Jason M. Duran, Neil Zalavadia, Yan Zhou, Hajime Kubo, Remus M. Berretta, Steven R. Houser Unique Features of Cortical Bone Stem Cells Associated With Repair of the Injured Heart Circulation Research (2015) doi: 10.1161/circresaha.115.307362
The authors claim they copy-pasted the first image and then replaced those placeholders with correct images, except in that one case of oversight. Yet you might notice that the image was not simply copy-pasted, but its green and blue signals were boosted in the process. Such things do not happen by a mistake, unless the authors wish to claim malicious somnambulism.
“an investigation by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) has determined that there were issues with some of the data provided by the authors at that institution and reported in the Supplemental Material for the article, specifically Online Figure II. As the original primary data was generated elsewhere and included as part of the Harvard Medical School/BWH investigation, the authors performed a new set of experiments to generate new data to correct Online Figure II.“
Now, Houser was always at the Temple University, since his PhD. The only coauthors with the BWH affilaition are Annarosa Leri and Jan Kajstura, long-term collaborators and partners in fraud of the infamous Piero Anversa, discoverer of non-existent heart stem cells (I was btw the first to find out where Anversa went after Harvard showed him the door: Cardiocentro Ticino in Switzerland). This is to say, the only reason Houser had to correct his paper was that wretched Anversa mega-investigation in Harvard. Obviously the experimental data in Zhang et al 2010 was likely found by the Harvard investigation to be fabricated, but now the cruel irony: the blame was attributed to Kajstura and Leri! The last author Houser and his coauthor and protege Sabri were declared hapless victims of their Harvard colleagues’ treacherous misconduct. No worries, the Temple team swiftly and exactly reproduced those 10 year old fictional results, and the problematic figure was replaced. In fact, back in 2014, when Anversa’s claims of heart stem cells started to become a serious problem or irreproducibility, Hauser was quoted in Science:
““We all hype our work,” says Steven Houser, a cardiac muscle biologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “We want to tell people our work is important. These patients, many of them coming to enroll in these trials, they have no other hope.” And, Houser suggests, in this case “the hype got ahead of the science.“
What does one call those things found in Houser’s own papers? Hype? Or something else?
Cardiology is unfortunately a rotten research area, even without Anversa and his gang. Where there is money, there is fraud, and money-wise cardiology is up there with cancer research, in fact it can be worse. At least oncologists don’t advice their patients to eat chocolate as medicine, like some very senior cardiologists do.
The rules are bent and broken, especially since every single paper can mean millions in cash for its authors, from research funders and industry. Especially papers with stem cells and regenerative medicine, the money potential there is really mind-boggling. Maybe this is why the following paper from Houser lab in Circulation Research was stealthily corrected without any notice at all.
Jason M. Duran, Catherine A. Makarewich, Thomas E. Sharp, Timothy Starosta, Fang Zhu, Nicholas E. Hoffman, Yumi Chiba, Muniswamy Madesh, Remus M. Berretta, Hajime Kubo, Steven R. Houser Bone-derived stem cells repair the heart after myocardial infarction through transdifferentiation and paracrine signaling mechanisms Circulation Research (2013) doi: 10.1161/circresaha.113.301202
The evidence was posted on PubPeer in October 2020, Houser notified by email.
Elisabeth Bik noticed on 11 December 2020:
“Strangely, the current version of the paper has a slightly different version of this figure where the HGF panel has been replaced by another panel. Yet, the paper does not have an official correction.“
This paper cannot have an official correction, dear Elies, because stem cell cardiology is literally a violent gold run with robberies and all, where they are that close to use actual firearms and dynamite. Next to Anversa, there was the infamous and litigious Bodo Strauer of University of Düsseldorf in Germany (I did my PhD there just when Strauer was “curing” people!), more recently we have the Nobel Prize winner Sir Martin Evans and his Celixir business with heart injections of some magic blood cells. And those are just the biggest names off the top of my head.
Update: I wrote to Hauser, Sabri and Rafiq on 6 January 2020, asking them to comment on the PubPeer criticism of their papers. I never received a reply, but the next day, on 7.01.2020, the journal issued a correction for that paper, which “does not alter the interpretation of the Figure nor that of the article“.
But this following Circulation Research paper by Houser and Sabri is uncorrectable, so best to look away, whistle, and wait for others to forget it.
Scott M. MacDonnell, Jutta Weisser-Thomas, Hajime Kubo, Marie Hanscome, Qinghang Liu, Naser Jaleel, Remus Berretta, Xiongwen Chen, Joan H. Brown, Abdel-Karim Sabri, Jeffery D. Molkentin, Steven R. Houser CaMKII Negatively Regulates Calcineurin–NFAT Signaling in Cardiac Myocytes Circulation Research (2009) doi: 10.1161/circresaha.109.194035
Recently, the penultimate author Jeffery Molkentin of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital even tried to save Anversa’s and Strauer’s legacy by claiming in Nature (Vagnozzi et al 2020) that bone marrow cells injected into the heart don’t have to be of the stem cell kind to do their healing work. Can Molkentin, or Houser for that matter, need a retraction now? Of course not. Forget you ever saw this paper and its fake gels.
Update: Both Jeffery Molkentin and Ronald Vagnozzi commented below (here and here), they disagree with my interpretation of their Nature publication, which I mistakenly attributed to 2018 instead of 2020. So far, no opionion on the MacDonnell et al 2009 blots.
There are of course more Sabri-Houser copro-ductions which earned the former a professorship at Temple and the latter probably lots and lots of cash from funding agencies and pharma industry. Here, ischaemic hearts, cured with Photoshop:
Khadija Rafiq, Mikhail A. Kolpakov, Rachid Seqqat, Jianfen Guo, Xinji Guo, Zhao Qi, Daohai Yu, Bhopal Mohapatra, Neha Zutshi, Wei An, Hamid Band, Archana Sanjay, Steven R. Houser, Abdelkarim Sabri c-Cbl inhibition improves cardiac function and survival in response to myocardial ischemia Circulation (2014) doi: 10.1161/circulationaha.113.007004
No paper by Rafiq and Sabri can ever be a disappointment. Houser can be proud. Look at this:
Khadija Rafiq, Jianfen Guo, Liudmila Vlasenko, Xinji Guo, Mikhail A. Kolpakov, Archana Sanjay, Steven R. Houser, Abdelkarim Sabri c-Cbl ubiquitin ligase regulates focal adhesion protein turnover and myofibril degeneration induced by neutrophil protease cathepsin G Journal of Biological Chemistry (2012) doi: 10.1074/jbc.m111.307009
Finally, here a very new paper, everyone is on board, plus their former postdoc Rachid Seqqat, now professor at the University of Armed Forces of Equador:
Rachid Seqqat, Xinji Guo, Khadija Rafiq, Mikhail A. Kolpakov, Jianfen Guo, Walter J. Koch, Steven R. Houser, Louis J. Dell’italia, Abdelkarim Sabri Beta1-adrenergic receptors promote focal adhesion signaling downregulation and myocyte apoptosis in acute volume overload Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology (2012) doi: 10.1016/j.yjmcc.2012.05.004
Now that you saw so many papers by Khadija Rafiq, you might think well, poor thing, she needed to put up with all that while working under Sabri and Houser, and now that she achieved her professorship at the Jefferson University, surely she stopped, right? Well, Rafiq has her own PubPeer record, in fact it was one of her fabricated papers which eventually led Clare Francis to Sabri and Houser. First, some Rafiq masterpieces with Sabri:
And this, more recent, with newly appointed professor Rafiq as last author:
Mikhail A Kolpakov, Kunal Sikder, Amrita Sarkar, Shaswati Chaki, Sanket K Shukla, Xinji Guo, Zhao Qi, Carlos Barbery, Abdelkarim Sabri, Khadija Rafiq Inflammatory Serine Proteases Play a Critical Role in the Early Pathogenesis of Diabetic Cardiomyopathy Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry (2019) doi: 10.33594/000000190
These offendingly fake figures were swiftly replaced with a recent correction:
“the authors confirm that all of the results and conclusions of the article remain unchanged”
But now have a look at this fraud orgy which Rafiq published in her own right as Jefferson University professor without Sabri or other usual Temple suspects to blame. Brace yourself.
Amrita Sarkar, Sanket K. Shukla, Aseel Alqatawni, Anil Kumar, Sankar Addya, Alexander Y. Tsygankov, Khadija Rafiq The Role of Allograft Inflammatory Factor-1 in the Effects of Experimental Diabetes on B Cell Functions in the Heart Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine (2018) doi: 10.3389/fcvm.2018.00126
That being Frontiers, expect a beautiful mega-correction, with conclusions not affected.
This is how bad science evolves with each generation of an academic dynasty. We saw it with Donath-Maedler-Ardestani transition, and here it is again. At the Temple University, it started relatively modestly with Houser (F0, although who taught him?), got worse with Sabri (F1) and became an utter Photoshop insanity with Rafiq (F2). I shudder to imagine what kind of science Rafiq’s own mentees will produce.
Michele Masucci, Vice-President for Research at Temple University acknowledged receiving my notification about the issues above and stated:
“Dr. Houser is not responsible for examining research misconduct at Temple University.“
On 6 July 2017, this statement was published in the journal Circulation Research, published by the American Heart Association (AHA), which president until July was Steven Houser, a coauthor of this white paper:
Thomas Eschenhagen , Roberto Bolli , Thomas Braun , Loren J. Field , Bernd K. Fleischmann , Jonas Frisén , Mauro Giacca , Joshua M. Hare , Steven Houser , Richard T. Lee , Eduardo Marbán , James F. Martin , Jeffery D. Molkentin , Charles E. Murry , Paul R. Riley , Pilar Ruiz-Lozano , Hesham A. Sadek , Mark A. Sussman , and Joseph A. Hill
Cardiomyocyte Regeneration: A Consensus Statement
Circulation (2017) doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.029343
It advertised for cell therapies for heart regeneration and cited the (now discredited as fraudulent) research by Piero Anversa and his colleague Roberto Bolli (one of the co-authors of the white paper). Some authors (Eschenhagen, Fleischmann, Frisen, Hare, Lee, Marban, Murry, Riley, Ruiz-Lozano and Sussman) declared their financial conflicts of interest (COI), which makes sense since their position paper advertises for cell therapies. Other authors, including Houser stated:
“The other authors report no conflicts.“
In September 2017, Houser’s lab published a paper in same Circulation Research, Sharpill et al, Cortical Bone Stem Cell Therapy Preserves Cardiac Structure and Function After Myocardial Infarction, (2017), where the following COI was declared:
“S.R. Houser is a named inventor on intellectual property filings that are related to the subject of this paper. In addition, S.R. Houser is a co-founder, scientific advisor, and holds equity in Myocard Therapeutics, LLC, a biotech start-up which will license S.R. Houser’s cortical bone cell technology from Temple University for commercial development and clinical trials.“
So why was this COI not declared in July’s white paper? Did the company not exist yet? Nope, it was founded in March 2017:
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