Surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was hailed for turning the dream of regenerative medicine into a reality until he was exposed as a con artist and false prophet
Scientific pioneer, superstar surgeon, miracle worker thats how Paolo Macchiarini was known for several years. Dressed in a white lab coat or in surgical scrubs, with his broad, handsome face and easy charm, he certainly looked the part. And fooled almost everyone.
Macchiarini shot to prominence back in 2008, when he created a new airway for Claudia Castillo, a young woman from Barcelona. He did this by chemically stripping away the cells of a windpipe taken from a deceased donor; he then seeded the bare scaffold with stem cells taken from Castillos own bone marrow. Castillo was soon back home, chasing after her kids. According to Macchiarini and his colleagues, her artificial organ was well on the way to looking and functioning liked a natural one. And because it was built from Castillos own cells, she didnt need to be on any risky immunosuppressant drugs.
This was Macchiarinis first big success. Countless news stories declared it a medical breakthrough. A life-saver and a game-changer. We now know that wasnt true. However, the serious complications that Castillo suffered were, for a long time, kept very quiet.
Meanwhile, Macchiarinis career soared. By 2011, he was working in Sweden at one of the worlds most prestigious medical universities, the Karolinska Institute, whose professors annually select the winner of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. There he reinvented his technique. Instead of stripping the cells from donor windpipes, Macchiarini had plastic scaffolds made to order. The first person to receive one of these was Andemariam Beyene, an Eritrean doctoral student in geology at the University of Iceland. His recovery put Macchiarini on the front page of the New York Times.
Macchiarini was turning the dream of regenerative medicine into a reality. This is how NBCs Meredith Vieira put it in her documentary about Macchiarini, appropriately called A Leap of Faith: Just imagine a world where any injured or diseased organ or body part you have is simply replaced by a new artificial one, literally manmade in the lab, just for you. This marvelous world was now within reach, thanks to Macchiarini.
Last year, however, the dream soured, exposing an ugly reality.
Macchiarini gave his regenerating windpipes to 17 or more patients worldwide. Most, including Andemariam Beyene, are now dead. Those few patients who are still alive including Castillo have survived in spite of the artificial windpipes they received.
In January 2016, Macchiarini received an extraordinary double dose of bad press. The first was a Vanity Fair article about his affair with Benita Alexander, an award-winning producer for NBC News. She met Macchiarini while producing A Leap of Faith and was soon breaking one of the cardinal rules of journalism: dont fall in love with the subject of your story.
By the time the program aired, in mid-2014, the couple were planning their marriage. It would be a star-studded event. Macchiarini had often boasted to Alexander of his famous friends. Now they were on the wedding guest list: the Obamas, the Clintons, Vladimir Putin, Nicolas Sarkozy and other world leaders. Andrea Bocelli was to sing at the ceremony. None other than Pope Francis would officiate, and his papal palace in Castel Gandolfo would serve as the venue. Thats what Macchiarini told his fiancee.