How the Karolinska protected Paolo Macchiarini — and whistleblowers paid the price

Carl Elliott

Retraction Watch readers may recall the story of Paolo Macchiarini, about whom we first wrote in 2012 before he became the subject of international scrutiny — and who has now been sentenced to prison. We are pleased to present an excerpt about the Macchiarini case from The Occasional Human Sacrifice: Medical Experimentation and the Price of Saying No by Carl Elliott published by W. W. Norton, May 2024.

One incident illustrates just how determined the leaders of the Karolinska Institute were to protect Paolo Macchiarini. In November of 2014, a leaked copy of the whistleblowers’ report came into the hands of the New York Times, which published an article titled “Leading Surgeon Is Accused of Misconduct in Experimental Transplant Operations.” The article detailed several of the most serious allegations against Macchiarini: that he had never obtained ethical permission to conduct his experiments, that his 2011 study in The Lancet had misrepresented the outcome of Beyene’s implant, and that of the three patients at the Karolinska Institute that Macchiarini had given synthetic implants, only Beyene had signed a consent form— and the form was dated two weeks after his surgery. The publicity generated by the article all but forced the Karolinska Institute to act. Anders Hamsten, the vice-chancellor, said he would ask for an external inquiry. 

Retaliation against the whistleblowers came quickly. According to Simonson, the whistleblowers were told that they had violated patient privacy and would be fired immediately. That didn’t happen, but in December the Karolinska Institute informed the whistleblowers that the head of the cardiothoracic clinic would deliver a formal warning, the last step before an employee is terminated.

The Karolinska Institute also reported the whistleblowers to the police. “I was called down to the police and put in a room with no windows, with a tape recorder and a lawyer and a policeman in front of me, and interrogated. That was pretty scary,” Matthias Corbascio, a cardiothoracic surgeons says. “It was exactly what it’s like on television. And you know, it’s hard to be a tough guy in that room.” 

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