Paolo Macchiarini cleared of misconduct, but some charges remain

There has been a great deal of excitement during the past several years over the regenerative medicine work of often-called “super surgeon” Dr. Paolo Macchiarini.

For an update on Paolo Macchiarini from a recent scathing Vanity Fair piece, see here.

Paolo Macchiarini

Hei has done pioneering work. For instance, he created and transplanted bioengineered windpipes that were produced in part via stem cells. However, Macchiarini also faced allegations of multiple serious instances of misconduct from others at Karolinska Institute, where he was a visiting professor. These allegations included charges of deleting or falsifying patient data, and involve seven different publications.

The engineered windpipes were transplanted into three seriously ill patients, two of whom have died while the third has remained hospitalized ever since surgery. We cannot know for sure, but it is quite possible that without treatment all of the patients would have died.

The Karolinska Institute has investigated at least some of the charges and now reportedly has exonerated him. This is a particularly striking outcome because just a few months ago in May a separate, independent investigator (surgeon Dr. Bengt Gerdin) had concluded that the misconduct had in fact occurred. Macchiarini and others reportedly provided additional information to the institution that may have played an important role in the Karolinska decision.

The NYT reports that Macchiarini is not entirely out of the woods yet though as he faces other accusations:

“Dr. Hamsten said that other accusations against the surgeon, regarding whether he had obtained the necessary permits and ethical clearances for the work, were not included in the decision, and that a prosecutor was conducting a preliminary inquiry on those issues.”

In addition to these unresolved issues, the Karolinska wasn’t exactly thrilled with how some of the work had been by done by Macchiarini:

“But the report said that Dr. Macchiarini’s work “does not meet the university’s high quality standards in every respect,” and that it “could therefore be appropriate” for him to submit corrections to some of the published scientific papers that described his work.”

The NYT was able to reach him by email in Russia, where he is now working, for comment on the resolution of the misconduct charges:

“To have been falsely accused of such serious misconduct is every researcher’s nightmare,” he said. “I am very keen that this case prompts a discussion of how such events can be avoided in the future.”

The original investigator, Dr. Gerdin, apparently was not made privy to the new documents of the Karolinska investigation and hence couldn’t comment on the new decision, but he didn’t seem pleased with today’s outcome according to a piece in Science:

“Gerdin says he has not yet read the material submitted in response to his report. But he says the process was flawed, in that it allowed Macchiarini to pull “aces from his sleeve” after the external investigation was complete. That seriously undermined the impartiality of the investigation, he says. “It’s a meaningless process” to commission an independent external reviewer if the final decision is based on documents available only to Karolinska officials, he says.”

In past years, Macchiarini had faced charges in Italy as well, where he reportedly had been arrested (also see news piece in Italian) and related to this some of his work was retracted. I was not able to determine the outcome of the charges in Italy so far, but some have speculated that that was a case of an overzealous Italian prosecutor going after a famous surgeon.

It remains unclear what comes next for the super surgeon, but at least overall Macchiarini appears to have been cleared of the most serious allegations stemming from the Karolinska situation.

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