Lawyering-up Research integrity University Affairs

Temple of Stolen Pig Materials

"This is a fight between two distinguished academics and the University at which they have tenure over a Pig Model...."

When I wrote my article about Steven Houser, senior dean for research at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine of the Temple University at Philadelphia, USA, little did I know what war was brewing behind the curtains and that my reporting will become part of a lawsuit. A lawsuit of Houser vs his employer and against his Temple colleague and fellow cardiologist, Arthur Feldman.

The irony is that Feldman and Houser used to be friends and now they fight over money. Temple actually sided with Houser but got sued by him anyway. So the university decided to use Houser’s PubPeer record of forged science against him in the lawsuit.

Steven Houser and the Temple of Fraud

“We all hype our work. 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.” -Steven Houser, Hero of Research Ethics, Temple University

Feldman used to be Chair of Medicine at the Thomas Jefferson University and back then, Houser was seeking to join him. But in 2011, the neighbouring medical dean at the neighbouring Temple University, John Daly, resigned, and Feldman’s friend Larry Kaiser was appointed as as a new Dean and CEO of the university hospital. Feldman was then recruited as Executive Dean to Temple so that Kaiser could focus on running the healthcare system, his primary interest.

Feldman retained his then-friend Houser in his position as Chair of the Physiology Department and appointed Joseph Cheung as Senior Associate Dean for Research, and Walter Koch as the Chair of Pharmacology. Shortly after, Feldman helped Cheung to become Chair of Medicine at Temple and appointed Houser as the new Senior Associate Dean for Research.

At some point, Feldman got into personal conflict with Kaiser, who asked the former to step down on the spot and eliminated the position of Executive Dean.

During this period, Temple’s Chair of Neuroscience professor Kamel Khalili (who actually never did any neuroscience research) proposed to Feldman to investigate the role of the protein BAG3 in the hearts of HIV-infected patients since these patients suffer from heart failure. The current Houser vs Feldman lawsuit is about this BAG3 research, even though this work doesn’t seem to have led anywhere, medically or scientifically. But it was successful financially: Khalili was able to secure R01 NIH funding before the project’s demise. Apparently, it was later somehow revived by Feldman, hence Houser’s lawsuit.

In October 2019, Temple forced Kaiser to resign and re-appointed Daly first as Interim Dean and in February 2021 as dean proper. In March 2021, the much criticised Daly suddenly died in a domestic accident. Khalili became Chair of Microbiology. Houser stepped down as Chair of Physiology after his department was dissolved, but remained the Director of Cardiovascular Center and Senior Associate Dean for Research. In this function, he is responsible of investigating suspected research misconduct at the medical school. Like that of Domenico Pratico, Antonio Giordano and himself.

Meanwhile, the university’s vice president for research Michele Masucci has just left Temple, for the same kind of job at the University System of Maryland. Also very recently, Houser stepped down as the Director of the Cardiovascular Center, the job was passed on to John Elrod, an associate of Walter Koch. Ironically, it was Elrod who initiated an internal complaint about Pratico and circulated that around to be signed, but Khalili and Houser refused to sign it back then. Daly is said to have expressed concern about the Pratico affair, but then he died. The new Interim Dean, the trauma surgeon Amy Goldberg (appointed in April 2021) doesn’t seem to show any interest in addressing Pratico’s research misconduct problem either, as one faculty member complained. Maybe this is why the recruitment process is still ongoing.

And now, to the “STEVEN HOUSER, Plaintiff, v. ARTHUR FELDMAN AND TEMPLE UNIVERSITY, Defendants” lawsuit. There was some media coverage by Bloomberg Law, and here is from the publicly available civil action lawsuit files, dated 26 October 2021:

“This case concerns, inter alia, an investigation by Defendant Temple University (“Temple”) into alleged research misconduct by Plaintiff Steven Houser. Houser has filed a Motion for a Protective Order to either enjoin the investigation or subject it to the discovery rules of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Temple’s investigation was prompted by complaints received by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Investigative Oversight, Office of Research Integrity (“ORI”) through the scientific research website “PubPeer.” These complaints alleged that Houser had engaged in possible research misconduct in 15 different papers that were supported by National Institute of Health grants (“PubPeer Papers”). In September 2020, in response to the PubPeer complaints, the ORI sent a letter to Temple requesting that it, in accordance with 42 C.F.R § 93.307, “examine all of the issues to determine whether each of the allegations have merit and are credible” and advising further that “the allegations require a prompt and thorough assessment to determine whether further action is necessary.” ORI’s letter then described the process Temple must follow in undertaking its assessment of the allegations against Houser. For example, Temple is required to “take all reasonable and practical steps to obtain custody of all of the research records and evidence needed to conduct the research misconduct proceeding, . . . inventory the records and evidence, and sequester them in a secure manner.” Further, it is to “pursue diligently all significant issues and leads discovered that are determined relevant to the inquiry. . . .”

In accordance with the letter, Temple commenced the investigation into the 15 papers (“PubPeer Inquiry”). It notified Houser of the PubPeer Inquiry by email on September 25, 2020. A few months later, in January 2021, Temple instructed Houser to preserve and provide it with documents relating to the PubPeer Papers and informed him that there would be an initial discussion of the specific allegations against him once Temple reviewed the documents he provided. Houser retained counsel, provided detail on his role in nine of the challenged papers and requested that Temple clarify the scope and nature of its inquiry. Shortly thereafter, Houser filed this lawsuit.

Six months later, in the midst of the discovery period in this litigation, Temple informed Houser of what it referred to as a “mandatory site-visit” scheduled as part of the PubPeer Inquiry at which Houser was expected to appear and be prepared to provide copies of research records and discuss research spaces used and individuals involved with the PubPeer Papers. Houser then filed the present Motion to “safeguard [his] rights” and to enjoin Temple from “engaging in sweeping extra-judicial discovery” as part of its PubPeer Inquiry. Temple counters that the PubPeer Inquiry is federally directed and mandated by the ORI and that Plaintiff, through his Motion, is seeking to impede the investigation.”

The investigation seems to have an effect already. One Houser paper, previously corrected, has been retracted. Its last author is Houser’s former postdoc and now full professor at his medical school, Abdelkarim Sabri. Nearly all of Houser’s problematic papers on PubPeer have Sabri as significant co-author, which may serve as a probable clue, hypothetically.

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 retraction notice went:

“The JACC Journals Ethics Board has voted to retract this paper. After questions about specific images were originally raised by a reader, the journal’s editorial board requested a response from the authors, who provided original images to replace Figure 6D and Figure 7E and a subsequent correction was published in September 2020. The correction raised further concerns about the image data. After an external evaluation, the decision to retract the paper is based on concerns regarding the splicing and/or duplication of Western blot images in Figures 3, 5, 6, S7, S8, S9, and S11. None of the apparent splices were indicated in the arrangement of the figures.”

It also turned out Houser is being investigated by Temple for his ties to the mega-fraudster and sacked Harvard scientist Piero Anversa, infamous for inventing an entire research field – that of heart stem cells. Which proved to be non-existent, despite many papers from other labs “reproducing” Anversa’s fake findings. Amazing how science works, isn’t it?

Houser tried the same legal tricks as Anversa did, to get the court to halt his university’s misconduct investigation against him, and failed. The court rejected Houser’s motion, referencing Anversa’s failure.

Now, Houser used to play a big critic of Anversa’s once the fraud scandal exploded, but he was connected to him via Annarosa Leri and Jan Kajstura, Anversa’s close associates and partners in crime. Thing is, huge money is still flowing into heart stem cell research despite Anversa’s fraud, as Reuters recently reported, and this is because of “honest” scientists like Houser.

“Steven R. Houser, a cardiovascular scientist who was AHA president in 2016, said that the research was needed to test the potential of adult stem cells. “The cardiac stem cell hypothesis did not fall into disfavor because of the discovery of data fabrication by the Anversa lab,” he said. “It went away because of careful science.””

The Reuters article also quotes another collaborator of Hauser’s:

“Now that we know that adult stem cells do not regenerate the heart and that past work suggesting otherwise was false, why hasn’t this knowledge traversed its way through the medical and research systems, and why do such studies persist?” said Jeffery Molkentin, the director of molecular cardiovascular biology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.”

Molkentin was also an early Anversa critic, but he actually repaired Anversa’s reputation 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 (he disagrees with my understanding of his paper). But look at this forgery Molkentin and Houser published:

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

Basically, the people who used to share the multi-million-heavy heart research trough with Anversa, and now divide among themselves all this big money his removal liberated, are possibly not exactly angels themselves. Here another paper of Molkentin’s, whom to blame here?

Nicole H. Purcell , Dina Darwis , Orlando F. Bueno , Judith M. Muller , Roland Schule , Jeffery D. Molkentin Extracellular signal-regulated kinase 2 interacts with and is negatively regulated by the LIM-only protein FHL2 in cardiomyocytes Molecular and Cellular Biology (2004) doi: 10.1128/mcb.24.3.1081-1095.2004

A cloned band? Molkentin refused to comment at that time.

In fact, these bigwigs of cardiology are fighting over every penny – like Houser and Feldman now, about the scientifically useless BAG3 research. From this year’s lawsuit files, dated 28 April 2022:

“This is a fight between two distinguished academics and the University at which they have tenure over a Pig Model that could have far reaching consequences in the development of treatments and therapies for certain types of heart attacks.”

And here are the details of the BAG3 fight:

“Defendant Feldman, like Houser, was studying heart failure. Specifically, he was studying the relationship between heart failure and levels of a molecule known as “BAG3” on a mouse model. Feldman did not have a large animal model like Houser’s Pig Model, and his mouse model did not hold the same degree of relevancy or significance to the development of human therapies and treatments. For whatever reason, sometime in 2014 or 2015, Feldman told one of the graduate students working in Houser’s lab, Thomas Sharp, that Houser had authorized Feldman to use the Pig Data and Pig Samples for his BAG3 research and that Houser would be a collaborator on forthcoming papers. In reality, Houser had not provided any such authorization, and Feldman had managed to lure Sharp into providing him with Houser’s trade secrets (“Stolen Pig Materials”). In 2015, Feldman and Sharp co-authored and published a paper that included the Stolen Pig Data and additional data derived from the Pig Samples. In 2017, Houser learned of this and reported Feldman to the Senior Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs at Temple’s School of Medicine, who in turn, forwarded Houser’s report to Temple’s Integrity Officer and Vice President of Research, Michele Masucci.”

It was this review paper, you see the names of Feldman, Sharp, the aforementioned Cheung and Khalili, but no Houser:

Tijana Knezevic , Valerie D. Myers , Jennifer Gordon , Douglas G. Tilley , Thomas E. Sharp , JuFang Wang , Kamel Khalili , Joseph Y. Cheung , Arthur M. Feldman BAG3: a new player in the heart failure paradigm Heart failure reviews (2015) doi: 10.1007/s10741-015-9487-6

Vice-rector for research Masucci (recall she just left for Maryland) took Houser’s side:

“About a week after Houser’s report regarding Feldman’s theft of his Pig Materials, Houser was told that Masucci would like him to accept an apology from Feldman. Houser accepted the apology and assumed that was all that could be done; Feldman did not return the Stolen IP or correct the 2015 Paper to note Houser’s contribution. As far as Houser is aware, no inquiry or investigation into Feldman was launched pursuant to the Policy as a result of his complaint.

Things were quiet for a while, but then in October of 2018, Houser learnt, through a public posting by Harvard University, that a peer-reviewed paper he had authored with other academics was under scrutiny by Harvard and the American Heart Association for including a potentially fabricated figure. The concern arose due to the paper’s affiliation with a disgraced former professor at Harvard University. Houser corrected the figure, the paper was unflagged and “remains accepted and competent scientific research.”

The Temple of Earthly Delights, Medical School fragment. By Hieronymus Bosch.

It must have been this 2018 paper of Houser’s, featuring Molkentin, Temple’s chair of pharmacology Koch (former friend of both Feldman and Houser), and these known mugs of fake science: Houser’s protege Sabri and Anversa’s gang members at Harvard, Leri and Kajstura:

Hongyu Zhang , Xiongwen Chen , Erhe Gao , Scott M. MacDonnell , Wei Wang , Mikhail Kolpakov , Hiroyuki Nakayama , Xiaoying Zhang , Naser Jaleel , David M. Harris , Yingxin Li , Mingxin Tang , Remus Berretta , Annarosa Leri , Jan Kajstura , Abdelkarim Sabri , Walter J. Koch , Jeffery D. Molkentin , Steven R. Houser Increasing cardiac contractility after myocardial infarction exacerbates cardiac injury and pump dysfunction Circulation Research (2010) doi: 10.1161/circresaha.110.219220

With co-authors like Sabri, Leri and Kojstura, the paper must have been as fake as a $45 bill. But because there is too much US money and power involved, it was corrected in 2020 instead:

“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.”

Houser wanted Temple University to charge his ex-friend Feldman with research misconduct over the “Stolen Pig materials”, but ended up under investigation himself:

“While this investigation was pending, Houser contacted Masucci to ask whether Feldman had used the Stolen Pig Materials in connection with any patent filings as he had learned that Feldman’s company, Renovcar, had obtained significant private investment for its BAG3 treatments. Masucci noted it was a fair question but declined to provide an answer until the close of Temple’s investigation.

Houser’s troubles only continued to mount. In 2020, Temple launched a second investigation into Houser following a complaint from the Office of Research Integrity of Department of Health and Human Services (“Office of Research Integrity”). This complaint pertained to anonymous allegations of plagiarism or fabrication made on the publishing website “PubPeer.””

Basically, my January 2021 article about Houser’s fake science (posted on PubPeer by Clare Francis) arrived in a nick of time, and is being used by Temple in this lawsuit. Nobody is thanking us of course.

Now you probably can guess what I did after I read about this Stolen Pig Materials quarrel. I checked Feldman on PubPeer.

Xavier Palomer , David Álvarez-Guardia , Mercy M. Davidson , Tung O. Chan , Arthur M. Feldman , Manuel Vázquez-Carrera The interplay between NF-kappaB and E2F1 coordinately regulates inflammation and metabolism in human cardiac cells PLoS ONE (2011) doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0019724 

In 2019, PLOS One issued an Expression of Concern, “In light of the concerns raised concerning multiple figure panels, and in the absence of image data supporting some of the results“. No further action happened, but maybe if you are into data integrity sleuthing: have a look at Feldman’s papers. Let’s make this lawsuit even more fun!


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7 comments on “Temple of Stolen Pig Materials

  1. smut.clyde

    An obscure historical event came to mind:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pig_War_(1859)

    Like

  2. It is important to correct an obvious error in this article that is also present in the previous one you posted on Houser – Sabri was never a postdoc with Houser. Sabri did his postdoc training in the Steinberg lab at Columbia and then became faculty at UAB before moving to a second faculty appointment at Temple (he was not even recruited to Temple by Houser). Sabri was fully independent when he arrived at Temple, and the distinction between a postdoc and an independent faculty member is an important one in academic science. As you allude to, postdocs are under the direct supervision of their PIs, however this was never the case for Sabri/Houser, and it is very misleading to present their relationship in this way. This misrepresentation of the facts seems to be intentional and raises some serious questions regarding the validity of the “facts” presented in your article.

    Like

    • Are you Houser, or someone acting on his behalf?

      Like

    • AHA policy about authorship:

      Authorship Requirements
      As stated in the Uniform Requirements, credit for authorship requires substantial
      contributions to:
      • conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
      • drafting the manuscript or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and
      • final approval of the version to be published.

      All 3 conditions must be met.

      Like

  3. More problematic data only just coming to light.

    See: https://pubpeer.com/publications/E17ADD4688DD5D71990748858E42BB#4

    Like

  4. Yet more problematic data just coming to light.

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/036B69DE028DD64654BD4B7B9CDA49#2

    Like

  5. MorePigStuff

    I’m surprised there hasn’t been one of these articles on Kamel Khalili’s treatment of post doc’s and trainees, scandals involving PIs engaging in inappropriate relationships with trainees, and trainees basically being “trafficked” from other countries and manipulated to work within the institution that everyone seems to have turned a blind eye to…

    Like

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