Dr. Paolo Macchiarini relaxes into a barber’s chair, leaning back to have his hair washed. “I am working for the university, and we are trying to create new organs,” he tells the barber, pausing to add an explanation: “Frankenstein.” Although Macchiarini, a transplant surgeon born in Switzerland to Italian parents, is fending off charges of research misconduct at his university, he appears untroubled, even carefree, in this scene from Bosse Lindquist’s documentary The Experiments.1 Knowing what lies ahead for him—dismissal, disgrace, manslaughter charges—it’s hard not to think of the beginning of Brian De Palma’s film The Untouchables, in which Robert De Niro, playing Al Capone, entertains questions from reporters as he gets a shave. Macchiarini is just as charming. As the barber finishes his work, Macchiarini breaks into a mischievous grin. “Perfect,” he says, clapping his hands in appreciation.
Few medical research scandals are as spectacular as Macchiarini’s. Five years ago he was a celebrity surgeon at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, one of Europe’s premier medical centers, which awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Macchiarini was implanting the world’s first artificial tracheas into patients—and by his account, doing it with great success. But soon there were murmurs about his methods. His patients appeared to be dying. In 2015 an external expert commissioned by the Karolinska Institute found him guilty of research misconduct. Yet the leaders of KI continued to defend Macchiarini and dismissed allegations by his critics, including four of his surgical colleagues. That defense ended in the early months of 2016, when Lindquist’s riveting three-part documentary was shown on Swedish television. The ensuing scandal not only led to the dismissal of Macchiarini and the senior leadership of the institute but also threatened the future of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Macchiarini’s dramatic rise began in 2008, when he performed a novel surgical procedure on Claudia Castillo, a young mother of two in Barcelona whose trachea had collapsed after a tuberculosis infection. Macchiarini took a trachea from a deceased donor, stripped it down to its cartilaginous structure, and seeded it with cells taken from Castillo’s bone marrow. The theory was that Castillo’s stem cells would attach themselves to the cadaveric trachea and transform into tracheal cells, making the trachea functional and eliminating the need for the immunosuppressant drugs that are necessary after transplants. A “milestone in medicine,” CNN proclaimed. Two years and several transplants later, Macchiarini got an offer to move to the Karolinska Institute.
“He was a very powerful and colorful person in many ways,” says Dr. Karl-Henrik Grinnemo in The Experiments. “Your chin just dropped and you just stood and absorbed it all and thought: ‘What an amazing person we have here!’” Grinnemo and Dr. Matthias Corbascio, both…
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