Regenerative medicine researcher and thoracic surgeon, Swiss-born Paolo Macchiarini, once hailed as a miracle worker, medical pioneer, and star surgeon, has been exposed as a con man. Sporting a handsome face and easy charm, for a while, the celebrity scientist had nearly everyone fooled.
The Rise and Fall of Paolo Macchiarini
In 2008, Macchiarini shot to fame when he gave a young Spanish woman, Claudia Castillo, a new airway. In what was called a pioneering technique, Macchiarini chemically removed cells from the windpipe of a deceased donor and transplanted them onto a scaffold along with stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow. Castillo didn’t need immunosuppression since the windpipe was built from her own cells. Macchiarini was celebrated for developing a functioning artificial organ. The serious complications that Castillo suffered were not reported. The procedure was hailed as medical breakthrough and game-changer in the field of regenerative medicine. Macchiarini’s career soared. In 2011, while working at the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Sweden, he reinvented the technique and began using made-to-order plastic scaffolds. When Andemariam Beyene, a doctoral student at the University of Iceland, received a Macchiarini windpipe, the superstar surgeon was featured on the front page of the New York Times.
By 2016, more than 17 patients around the world had received Macchiarini’s artificial windpipes. Unfortunately, most, including Beyene, did not survive the procedure. Castillo is one of the few patients who lived.
Paolo Macchiarini – Con Man Extraordinaire
Macchiarini’s conmanship was not limited to medicine alone. When he was at the height of his success, Vanity Fair journalist Benita Alexander met Macchiarini for a feature article and fell in love with the celebrity surgeon. Macchiarini promised her an outlandish wedding officiated by Pope Francis himself at the papal palace with a guest list including Obama, Clinton, Sarkozy, and Putin. The plans unraveled when Alexander found out Macchiarini was married and had been for the past three decades. Following this preposterous deceit, Macchiarini was labeled an extreme type of con man by a noted Harvard expert on psychopaths.
Stem Cell Engineered Windpipes – A Dream or Reality?
A revealing documentary by a Swedish television network argued that Macchiarini’s deceit was not limited to matters of the heart. The artificial windpipes he engineered with stem cells sourced from the patient did more harm than good. Investigations revealed how Macchiarini was allowed to carry on dangerous experiments for so long. Organizations and department heads, in awe of his fame, had allowed Macchiarini to do as he pleased, including placing the windpipes in human patients before testing them in animals. Risk assessments, government approvals, permits, and ethical reviews were all overlooked. His celebrity status allowed him to sidestep a vast number of regulations. Macchiarini used the compassionate use loophole, citing that patients receiving his artificial windpipes were facing certain death with no other known treatment. In fact, this was found to be untrue. Beyene had been in reasonably good health at the time of his operation. When the artificial airway failed less than three years later, his death was a grueling ordeal. A sordid saga of allegations and counter-allegations between Macchiarini and the scientific community followed.
Unfortunately, the Macchiarini episode has added another scandal to the field of stem cell research. Fraud is common in this field which requires high levels of funding and typically enjoys extensive media coverage. Other well-known cons in stem cell research include South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk’s claim of creating human embryonic stem cells through cloning and Japanese scientist Haruko Obokata’s claim of developing a technique to turn ordinary cells into stem cells.