Karolinska requests retraction of 2014 Macchiarini paper

Paolo Macchiarini

It has been a tough couple of years for surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, once lauded for pioneering a groundbreaking procedure to transplant tracheas.

After a series of documentaries prompted his former employer, Karolinska Institutet (KI), to reopen a misconduct investigation against him, KI has today released one verdict regarding a 2014 Nature Communications paper: guilty.

KI said it is contacting the journal to request a retraction of the paper, which has already been flagged with an expression of concern.

Here’s more from a release from the institution:

KI finds that Paolo Macchiarini and three of the co-authors had insight into and an overview of the process, either in its entirety or in large part, and are thus to be found guilty of scientific misconduct. The remaining authors contributed in ways that are not judged to constitute misconduct, nor were they in a position to have had insight into or an overview of the whole project.

Regarding penal measures, two senior authors are no longer employed at Karolinska Institutet, so no action in terms of labour law will be taken.

Given that the two junior researchers were in a position of dependency towards their more senior colleagues in the research group and that the process has been very protracted, their circumstances must be considered mitigating. They have therefore been issued with a caution.

The four authors are Paolo Macchiarini, Philipp Jungebluth, Sebastian Sjöqvist and Mei Ling Lim. Macchiarini and Jungebluth are no longer at KI (Macchiarini was dismissed in March), and Sjöqvist and Lim have received admonitions.

Macchiarini told us:

KI’s announcement will hardly come as a surprise to anyone, and I have nothing more to add that wasn’t in the documents I submitted to the Swedish Justice Office earlier this year regarding both [Central Ethical Review Board] and KI’s behaviour in this matter.

According to the 15-page report, regarding Sjöqvist and Lim:

The responsible department head at Karolinska Institutet shall in the next two years or, if their employment is shorter, during their time of employment actively follow up and support the research they conduct at Karolinska Institutet to ensure that the research is conducted in accordance with good research practice.

The paper — which already has an expression of concern, issued in October, 2016 — described transplanting an esophagus into rats that was seeded with their own stem cells. According to the findings, all animals survived the study period (14 days), and those that received the transplant gained more weight than rats who were given a placebo operation. It has been cited nine times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.

Sebastian Sjöqvist and Philipp Jungebluth did not agree with the EOC, according to the notice.

In 2015, Macchiarini was initially cleared of misconduct in the 2014 paper — and many other allegations — by then-chancellor Anders Hamsten (who has since resigned). However, after Swedish Television aired a series of documentaries raising new allegations about his work, such as operating on patients whose lives were not in danger, KI ordered a new investigation.

According to KI, the investigators are taking a second look at several of Macchiarini’s articles; this is the first decision to come out of that re-examination.

It follows a decision by Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board earlier this year, which concluded he had committed misconduct by releasing misleading results. According to the board’s full decision (published by Science):

In the investigation it transpired that the aspects that were reported as being successful were not successful. The rats which were part of the experiment, for example, contrary to what the article maintains, showed very significant weight loss, which would not have been the case if the experiment had been a success. In addition, the rats lost so much weight and deteriorated so much in condition that the experiment should have been stopped. The article also contains a number of references which have resulted in incorrect interpretations, thereby misleading the ethical committee on animal research. The pictures and figures that reportedly demonstrate the success of the experiment are also incorrect and misleading in several places. The raw data that the Expert Group has had access to is not always consistent with the figures in the article, which leads to incorrect conclusions…It is therefore, in the Expert Group’s view, conclusively established that the presentation of the results in the article is inconsistent with the outcome of the research that was conducted, which is scientific misconduct.

You can read more details about the initial accusations regarding the 2014 paper, as well as Macchiarini’s response, here.

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