Retraction Watch

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Karolinska vice-chancellor resigns following criticism of Macchiarini investigation

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Anders Hamsten

Anders Hamsten

Anders Hamsten announced he would be resigning as vice-chancellor from Karolinska Institutet (KI) in the early hours of Saturday, February 13.

In a press release we received at 12:16 a.m. local time in Stockholm, Hamsten issued the following statement:

Following the criticism on the so called Macchiarini affair at KI I conclude it will be hard for me to serve as Vice-Chancellor with the strength and credibility this university needs. I will therefore leave office.

Good thing we published a primer on the whole story a few hours ago. To recap:

After surgeon extraordinaire Paolo Macchiarini created tracheas from cadavers and patients’ own stem cells, he has faced charges of misconduct. Even though an external investigation agreed with some of the charges, Hamsten ruled that Macchiarini acted in some cases “without due care,” but that his behavior “does not qualify as scientific misconduct.”

Recently, Swedish Television aired a series of documentaries about Macchiarini that raised new allegations, such as that he operated on patients in Russia whose conditions were not life-threatening enough to warrant such a risky procedure. KI announced it would not extend Macchiarini’s contract, and it would issue a new external investigation of Macchiarini, examining questions about his recruitment and the handling of previous allegations of misconduct.

At the time of that announcement, the Karolinska Institutet University Board reaffirmed its support for Hamsten, who has been under pressure following the earlier decision:

The University Board has full confidence in Vice Chancellor Anders Hamsten and has urged him to remain in office during the investigation. Whether the outcome of the investigation will lead the board to change its stance in this respect is not a matter for speculation at present.

Hamsten announced his resignation in an article just published in Dagens Nyheter. In it, he writes:

Because of the attention in the media, KI has received new information which definitely gives a modified picture of the charges of irregularity against Paolo Macchiarini. My conclusion is that KI’s investigation into Paolo Macchiarini’s scientific misconduct has to be reopened. Against this backdrop it seems very likely that my decision in this case was wrong.

That decision comes after he received new information about the case, Hamsten notes:

During the last few days it has become obvious that the information possessed by KI when the matter was investigated was not complete. Last Wednesday we were given a new impression of the period following the operation in Iceland on his first patient, whose case is the basis of some of Macchiarini’s articles. During the last few days KI has also received information that implies serious inaccuracies in an article describing trials with artificial tracheae in rats. This information was totally new for KI. We are now endeavouring to investigate this information thoroughly and arrange an independent examination. But there is much to indicate that the judgement reached by KI last summer should be amended to scientific misconduct, which in plain language means research fraud.

In hindsight I can conclude that I should have looked for these probable inaccuracies during the review that led to the decision KI made on the matter of misconduct in August 2015. We should quite simply have been more thorough. As Vice-Chancellor of KI I am ultimately responsible for this.

The same day the KI announced it would reopen the investigation, four whistleblowers released a statement saying they had provided evidence of misconduct long before the SVT documentary series aired.

Hamsten concludes that he feels his only choice is to resign:

The fact that Karolinska Institutet’s reputation has been tarnished by the ”Macchiarini affair” is extremely serious and is something for which I am obviously responsible. KI’s board has initiated an investigation into KI’s handling of Paolo Macchiarini from recruitment onwards and, not least, my actions in the misconduct investigation. A similar external investigation of Karolinska University Hospital’s role is being undertaken. This is excellent, as the two autonomous investigations will provide answers about direct errors that have been committed and what can be learned from them.

I am aware that confidence in me as Vice-Chancellor of KI has been impaired, both in the public, the research community and many of KI’s employees and students. The chorus of voices raised to demand my resignation is so multifarious and strident that I realise it will be difficult for me to continue working as Vice Chancellor of Sweden’s most successful university with credibility and effectiveness. That is why I am resigning my position.

Hamsten’s resignation is the second we know of related to the Macchiarini case. Last Saturday, the secretary general of the Nobel Assembly resigned from his post because “he may be involved” in the investigation.

According to the release announcing Hamsten’s resignation, KI has also received a new report of scientific misconduct in two of Machiarini’s articles in rats. According to Jan Carlstedt-Duke, Professor and Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor at Karolinska Institutet:

When looking at images in those articles several of them seem to be very similar. That leads us to clearly suspect that data published in those publications are incorrect.

PubPeer commenters have noted potential image issues, although it’s unclear if they are the same as those two which Carlstedt-Duke was referring.

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Written by Alison McCook

February 12th, 2016 at 7:00 pm

Comments
  • Tomas Lindblad February 13, 2016 at 4:19 am

    Just to complement the information. The statement “After surgeon extraordinaire Paolo Macchiarini created tracheas from cadavers and patients’ own stem cells, he has faced charges of misconduct” is not correct.
    The charges, and the scandal and uproar in Sweden comes after his transplants with artificial scaffolds seeded with stem cells. Not from cadavers. These scaffolds are made by PM:s friends at HART, Harvard Apparatus Regenerative Technology. They have repeatedly failed, which is clear to everyone who has followed the case.
    (Serious commenters in Sweden does actually compare him to Dr Mengele. If you haven’t seen the scenes in the documentary from Russia, you must. It is hair raising to see the slow demise if his patient.)
    And The Lancet still looks the other way…Stiff upper lip?

  • Torbjörn Larsson February 14, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    I can add that the Swedish Minister of Research has launched an investigation if and how Sweden can transit to a system with independent review of universities, and how to better demarcate between research and surgery. [ http://www.nyteknik.se/nyheter/bioteknik_lakemedel/bioteknik/article3961289.ece ]

    [Adding a personal opinion, I find it refreshing that Hamsten issues an apology apology, instead of the not-pologies so often seen.]

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