Background: Autologous bone marrow stem cell therapy is the greatest advance in the treatment of heart disease for a generation according to pioneering reports. In response to an unanswered letter regarding one of the largest and most promising trials, we attempted to summarise the findings from the most innovative and prolific laboratory.
Method and results: Amongst 48 reports from the group, there appeared to be 5 actual clinical studies ("families" of reports). Duplicate or overlapping reports were common, with contradictory experimental design, recruitment and results. Readers cannot always tell whether a study is randomised versus not, open-controlled or blinded placebo-controlled, or lacking a control group. There were conflicts in recruitment dates, criteria, sample sizes, million-fold differences in cell counts, sex reclassification, fractional numbers of patients and conflation of competitors' studies with authors' own. Contradictory results were also common. These included arithmetical miscalculations, statistical errors, suppression of significant changes, exaggerated description of own findings, possible silent patient deletions, fractional numbers of coronary arteries, identical results with contradictory sample sizes, contradictory results with identical sample sizes, misrepresented survival graphs and a patient with a negative NYHA class. We tabulate over 200 discrepancies amongst the reports. The 5 family-flagship papers (Strauer 2002, STAR, IACT, ABCD, BALANCE) have had 2665 citations. Of these, 291 citations were to the pivotal STAR or IACT-JACC papers, but 97% of their eligible citing papers did not mention any discrepancies. Five meta-analyses or systematic reviews covered these studies, but none described any discrepancies and all resolved uncertainties by undisclosed methods, in mutually contradictory ways. Meta-analysts disagreed whether some studies were randomised or "accepter-versus-rejecter". Our experience of presenting the discrepancies to journals is that readers may remain unaware of such problems.
Conclusions: Modern reporting of clinical research can still be imperfect. The scientific literature absorbs such reports largely uncritically. Even meta-analyses seem to resolve contradictions haphazardly. Discrepancies communicated to journals are not guaranteed to reach the scientific community. Journals could consider prioritising systematic reporting of queries even if seemingly minor, and establishing a policy of "habeas data".
Keywords: Adult stem cells; Cardiac regeneration; Cognitive dissonance; Inattentional blindness; Meta-analysis.
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