Dr. Paolo Macchiarini exemplifies how things can change quickly in the stem cell world and go from sky highs to deep lows.
Stem cell rollercoasters
Over the years, a few academic stem cell researchers as well as some operators in the unproven clinic sphere have had dizzying ups and downs.
There’s John Kosolcharoen. His company Liveyon was once generating so much money he drove around in a glittering white Rolls Royce. Then a contaminated batch of cells they marketed made dozens of people seriously ill, sending many to the hospital. It’s not clear what his future holds.
We also can’t forget the STAP cells scandal folks either. It was deadly in a way.
The list goes on.
However, at this point, Paolo Macchiarini may get the stem cell roller coaster award.
Before diving more into this new criminal case, I would stress that from my decades in the field, it’s clear that 99% of stem cell researchers are good folks. They are working hard to make a difference. The rare bad apples can do a lot of harm though and lead others astray.
Dr. Paolo Macchiarini and the downward spiral
At one point more than a dozen years ago many were heralding Macchiarini as an amazing stem cell pioneer but this week he was convicted again on criminal charges. The court case in Sweden focused on Macchiarini’s efforts to make an engineered trachea using in part stem cells.
How did we get to this point? Alarm bells started going off within a few years of his rise about possible misconduct in that clinical research.
For one thing, there was no good evidence to back up the use of the synthetic trachea in people.
Gretch Vogel at Science has coverage of the new verdict. Her article highlights how in some ways Macchiarini got off easy despite the final conviction. Things looked bleaker at the beginning of the criminal investigation:
“In 2017, prosecutors in Sweden charged Macchiarini with manslaughter in connection with the three patients who had received transplants at KI in 2011 and 2012, all of whom had died: Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene, a graduate student from Eritrea with a slow-growing cancer obstructing his windpipe; Christopher Lyles, a 30-year-old American with tracheal cancer; and Yesim Cetir, a teenager from Turkey whose trachea had been accidentally damaged during a previous surgery. Prosecutors dropped the case a few months later, however, saying they didn’t have sufficient evidence to prove manslaughter.
They reopened the case in 2020, this time charging Macchiarini on lesser counts of aggravated assault and severe bodily harm. The court heard testimony in the case between 27 April and 12 May.”
These are real people who suffered and died.
Yet oddly the Swedish court also now suspended Macchiarini’s sentence. I don’t know if that could change as appeals are possible. I’m not sure he ever did jail time in Italy either despite being sentenced to do time there.
Guilty also of research misconduct but few retractions
Macchiarini was also earlier found guilty of research misconduct.
Another strange twist to his ups and downs is that despite the finding of research misconduct, several of his troubled papers remain unretracted.
Most notably, The Lancet has made the undefendable decision not to retract a key paper on the synthetic tracheas. This despite the journal publishing a piece on how Paolo Macchiarini was guilty of research misconduct and retracting two other peoples.
Frankly, The Lancet’s handling of the Macchiarini situation over the years has been awful yet not that unusual sadly. For example, see this piece in The BMJ by Ingrid Torjesen: Lancet will not retract discredited paper on tissue engineered trachea transplants. From Torjesen:
“The paper’s lead author Paolo Macchiarini was sacked by the Karolinska Institutet; found guilty of research misconduct by Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board, which requested retraction of six papers resulting from Karolinska research; and received a 16 month prison sentence in Italy for forging documents and abuse of office.
Virtually all subsequent patients who received tissue engineered trachea transplant”
The major conclusions of the 2008 paper in question were likely false. The failure to retract in this case fits with a larger pattern where journals and publishers often refuse to take action. There seems to be almost no accountability for publishers for failing to retract flawed papers.
Romantic misadventures: Macchiarini wife and more
Then there was the story of journalist Benita Alexander and how she fell for Macchiarini.
The Vanity Fair piece on the Benita Alexander Paolo Macchiarini relationship is wild reading. Very tabloid. Yet there is important information too.
Somehow the saga involved Putin and the Pope too.
Despite all this, as best as I can tell Macchiarini and his wife Emanuela Pecchia may still be together.
What does the future hold for Paolo Macchiarini?
The disappointing suspended sentence in this Swedish case may mean that the disgraced former “stem cell surgeon” can go on with life.
Not surprisingly, long-time followers of the Macchiarini story like Leonid Schneider seem angry but not necessarily surprised. Bitter is more like it at how these kinds of things tend to unfold unjustly. I believe his rhetoric is often way over the top, but Leonid has done some good and paid a heavy price for covering such stories over the years.
I’d say that Macchiarini’s career as a physician and a researcher is probably over. But we’ll see. Almost nothing would surprise me anymore. He seems kind of like an endlessly regenerating immortal jellyfish.
Looking ahead, can someone else in the Wild West part of the stem cell arena outdo Macchiarini’s wild and deadly ride?