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Macchiarini was turning the dream of regenerative medicine into a reality. Most, including Andemariam Beyene, are now dead. Those few patients who are still alive — including Castillo — have survived in spite of the artificial windpipes they received. In January , Macchiarini received an extraordinary double dose of bad press.
By the time the program aired, in mid, the couple were planning their marriage. It would be a star-studded event. Macchiarini had often boasted to Alexander of his famous friends. Now they were on the wedding guest list: the Obamas, the Clintons, Vladimir Putin, Nicolas Sarkozy and other world leaders. Andrea Bocelli was to sing at the ceremony. None other than Pope Francis would officiate, and his papal palace in Castel Gandolfo would serve as the venue. But as the big day approached, Alexander saw these plans unravel, and finally realised that her lover had lied about almost everything.
The pope, the palace, the world leaders, the famous tenor — they were all fantasies. Which left a big, burning question in the air: if Macchiarini was a pathological liar in matters of love, what about his medical research? Was he conning his patients, his colleagues and the scientific community? On the contrary, they seemed to do more harm than good — something that Macchiarini had for years concealed or downplayed in his scientific articles, press releases and interviews. Some answers have emerged from the official inquiries into the Karolinska Institute and the Karolinska University hospital.
They identified many problems with the way the twin organisations handled him.
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These included Harriet Wallberg, who was the vice-chancellor of the Karolinska Institute in , when Macchiarini was recruited. This set a dangerous example. It showed department heads and colleagues that they should give Macchiarini special treatment.
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He could do pretty much as he pleased. In the first couple of years at Karolinska, he put plastic airways into three patients. Since this was radically new, Macchiarini and his colleagues should have tested it on animals first.
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Though Macchiarini was in the public eye, he was able to sidestep the usual rules and regulations. Or rather, his celebrity status helped him do so. No, he was just caring for his patients who were, one and all, facing certain death with no other treatment options available and no time to waste. In such dire circumstances, new treatments can be tried as a last resort.
In their view, Macchiarini was certainly engaged in clinical research. Andemariam Beyene, for instance, had recurrent cancer of the windpipe but, aside from a cough, was still in good health. He could see no real evidence that the windpipe scaffolds were becoming living, functioning airways — in which case, they were destined to fail.
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The only question was how long it would take — weeks, months or a few years. Support for Macchiarini remained strong, even as his patients began to die. In part, this is because the field of windpipe repair is a niche area. Also, in such a highly competitive environment, people are keen to show allegiance to their superiors and wary of criticising them.
And difficult to jump off. In early , four Karolinska doctors defied the reigning culture of silence by complaining about Macchiarini. In their view, he was grossly misrepresenting his results and the health of his patients. An independent investigator agreed. For their efforts, the whistleblowers were punished. When Macchiarini accused one of them, Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, of stealing his work in a grant application, Hamsten found him guilty. No one wanted to collaborate with me.
The Macchiarini scandal claimed many of his powerful friends. The vice-chancellor, Anders Hamsten, resigned.
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Likewise the secretary-general of the Nobel Committee. None of these institutions have faced the same kind of public scrutiny.
None have been forced to hold full and independent inquiries. They should be. If the sins of Karolinska have been committed elsewhere, it is partly because medical research facilities share a common milieu, which harbours common dangers.
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