In 2011 stem cell research was probably the hottest topic in science. So it was hardly surprising that a researcher at Sweden’s world-famous Karolinska Institutet became a media sensation when he announced that he had created an artificial windpipe with stem cells. Italian researcher Paolo Macchiarini “seeded” a plastic tube with stem cells taken from a patient’s bone marrow and used it to help 36-year-old Andemariam Beyene, a graduate student from Eritrea living in Iceland.
Five years later Mr Beyene is dead, Macchiarini may be charged with manslaughter, his research seems to be corrupt and unethical, the reputation of the Karolinska Institutet is in tatters, its head has been sacked, its board has been asked to resign and a cloud hangs over the Nobel Prize for Medicine. It is the biggest scandal ever in Swedish medicine.
This is a complex story, but it appears that Dr Macchiarini, though undoubtedly a gifted surgeon, was also a snake oil merchant who fooled top people in the Swedish medical establishment. Investigative journalism, not university committees, exposed the truth.
Macchiarini’s artificial trachea was built on wishful thinking, not clinical success. After all the operations ended in failure and most of them in death, it has become apparent that the stem cell pioneer was just another huckster, much like South Korea’s Hwang Woo-suk.
It should be noted that Macchiarini insists that he had acted ethically and with the best of intentions:
“I would like to add that the welfare of patients has always been my driving concern.