The Fall from Grace of a Famous Italian Surgeon.
By making a “bioartificial” windpipe, Dr. Paolo Macchiarini became famous. But it didn’t work, and a Swedish court has held him criminally responsible for hurting a patient.
It sounded like real-life science fiction: a 3-D printed organ, a groundbreaking artificial windpipe, built in a lab and made to order. The charismatic Italian surgeon who made it saw a future where hearts and lungs could be made from plastic and organ donations were no longer needed. He became a star almost overnight.
But on Thursday, a Swedish court found the surgeon, Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, guilty of causing felony bodily harm to a patient whom he had given one of the windpipes at a medical school in Sweden.
Dr. Macchiarini got a “conditional” sentence, which means it was put on hold, and was found not guilty of assaulting two other patients who also got artificial organs from him at the Swedish facility. Even though all three of Dr. Macchiarini’s patients died in the end, he was not directly accused of killing them.
Many people in Sweden were disappointed with the sentence because they thought it was too light, especially since prosecutors had asked for five years in prison. However, the verdict was the end of a shocking fall from grace for a once-famous surgeon.
In 2011, Dr. Macchiarini, a well-known leader in the field of regenerative medicine, built and put in the world’s first “bioartificial” windpipe. This was a big deal in the medical world.
During the procedure, a damaged trachea was replaced with a plastic copy that had been soaked in the stem cells of the patient. The idea was easy to understand: let the body do most of the work. Dr. Macchiarini wanted to fix an old problem with organ transplants that use donated organs, which the body sometimes rejects as foreign tissue. He did this by using the patient’s own cells.
The operation, which was done at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, part of one of the best medical schools in the world, was called a revolution. It made Dr. Macchiarini famous around the world and put him on the map as a scientist.
But Dr. Macchiarini was hiding a secret behind closed doors: the procedures were not working.
Colleagues said he messed with his results and even said that these so-called “regenerative windpipes” were dangerous. There were also claims that the dangerous procedure was done on at least one person who was not very sick at the time. It was too late, though.
One biomedical researcher has found that Macchiarini did 20 tracheal regeneration procedures in Russia, Spain, Britain, the US, and Sweden. Almost all of those people have passed away.
Dr. Bengt Gerdin, an independent investigator hired by the Karolinska Institute in 2015 to look into Dr. Macchiarini’s work, said, “The law is supposed to protect people from all kinds of assault, especially when they are helpless.”
At the time, his research showed that Dr. Macchiarini had broken scientific rules, but the university’s leaders chose to ignore this and let the Italian surgeon off the hook.
“No one is more helpless than someone who is sick,” Dr. Gerdin said.
The case was about a Turkish woman named Yesim Cetir. She was the only one of his patients at Karolinska who had lived the longest.
According to the written judgment of the court, Ms. Cetir’s health quickly got worse after she was given a synthetic trachea in August 2012. She was in the intensive care unit at Karolinska University Hospital for more than three years and had more than 200 surgeries.
The judge said that hospital staff said she had about 40 “near-death experiences” during this time. She was awake and aware during most of them, but she couldn’t breathe.
“The plastic trachea that Yesim Cetir got changed her appearance and made her last three years of life pretty much like torture,” said Bosse Lindquist, a documentary filmmaker who broke the story about Dr. Macchiarini in Sweden in a TV series called “The Experiment.”
Dr. Gerdin said that the Karolinska Institute and its hospital allowed Dr. Macchiarini to keep doing his procedures for so long.
Dr. Gerdin said that Macchiarini had tricked the Karolinska Institute. He also said, “He was one of the best con artists I’ve ever met.” “He convinced the Karolinska Institute that this could make them famous, so they just let him do it. Not only that, but they hid it afterward.”
Both the Karolinska Institute and the Karolinska University Hospital looked into Dr. Macchiarini’s work and found that problems had been hidden.
The Karolinska Institute didn’t want to say anything about this article, but they did say that Dr. Macchiarini’s sentence could be appealed. Bjorn Hurtig, who was hired to defend the surgeon, said that his client was thinking about filing an appeal. According to a timeline on the Karolinska Institute’s website, the Karolinska University Hospital fired Dr. Macchiarini as a surgeon in 2013, but the affiliated Karolinska Institute kept him on until 2016. This was even as the scandal over his work grew.
It’s not clear if Dr. Macchiarini still works as a doctor, but in May, his lawyer said that he had no income. Mr. Hurtig wouldn’t talk about “Paolo’s private affairs” on Friday.
It is also not clear if Thursday’s verdict will have any effect in other places where Dr. Macchiarini did operations on windpipes. So far, none of these countries have brought charges against him.