Wednesday, an appeals court in Sweden handed down a sentence of two and a half years in jail to an Italian surgeon who was once acclaimed for pioneering windpipe surgery. The physician was found guilty of severe assault on patients.
In 2011, Paolo Macchiarini garnered plaudits for claiming to have done the world’s first synthetic trachea transplants using stem cells when he was working as a surgeon at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. These transplants were made using a patient’s own stem cells.
The experimental method was heralded as a significant step forward in the field of regenerative medicine.
However, accusations surfaced almost immediately that the treatment had been performed on people who were not suffering from a life-threatening illness at the time of the surgery.
Although the deaths of his patients in Sweden have not been definitively connected to the surgery, three of his patients there passed away.
In May, a district court ruled that the operations were not in line with “science and proven experience” and so found him guilty of inflicting physical damage to one of his patients.
However, the court acquitted him of assault charges brought against two other patients by stating that the treatments were “justifiable” because the patients’ health was in such a precarious position.
The decision of the lower court was challenged by both the prosecution and the defense, and on Wednesday, the Svea court of appeal found him guilty of three counts of aggravated assault.
The appeals court came to the conclusion that the treatments were performed on two of the patients even though they were “not in emergency situations” and “could have lived for a not insignificant amount of time without the interventions.” This constitutes scientific misconduct.
The third patient was in what the court termed a “emergency situation,” but “the procedure was, despite this, unjustifiable,” according to a statement issued by the court.
It was also determined that he behaved intentionally.
“These were not impulsive actions, these were planned interventions,” Judge Maria Holcke stated in the statement.
Macchiarini, who is now 64 years old, and his associates carried out a total of eight of these transplants between the years 2011 and 2014; three of them took place in Sweden between the years 2011 and 2012, while five of them took place in Russia.
According to reports from Swedish media, four of the five patients who were from Russia passed away as well.
Macchiarini has claimed before the court that the transplants were a viable option that was chosen after all other possibilities had been investigated and ruled out.
The research center at the Karolinska Institute, which is responsible for presenting the Nobel Prize in Medicine, was also staffed by the surgeon.
Macchiarini was terminated from his position at the Institute in 2016, and in 2018 it was determined that he had engaged in scientific misconduct. The research misconduct was discovered to have occurred in 2015 after an external review.
In 2018, the medical publication The Lancet decided to withdraw two of Macchiarini’s studies that he had authored.