Paolo Macchiarini cleared of misconduct, but some charges remain

There has been a great deal of excitement during the past several years over the regenerative medicine work of often-called “super surgeon” Dr. Paolo Macchiarini.

Paolo Macchiarini

STAFFAN LARSSON/KAROLINSKA INSTITUTE

Hei has done pioneering work. For instance, he created and transplanted bioengineered windpipes that were produced in part via stem cells. However, Macchiarini also faced allegations of multiple serious instances of misconduct from others at Karolinska Institute, where he was a visiting professor. These allegations included charges of deleting or falsifying patient data, and involve seven different publications.

The engineered windpipes were transplanted into three seriously ill patients, two of whom have died while the third has remained hospitalized ever since surgery. We cannot know for sure, but it is quite possible that without treatment all of the patients would have died.

The Karolinska Institute has investigated at least some of the charges and now reportedly has exonerated him. This is a particularly striking outcome because just a few months ago in May a separate, independent investigator (surgeon Dr. Bengt Gerdin) had concluded that the misconduct had in fact occurred. Macchiarini and others reportedly provided additional information to the institution that may have played an important role in the Karolinska decision.

The NYT reports that Macchiarini is not entirely out of the woods yet though as he faces other accusations:

“Dr. Hamsten said that other accusations against the surgeon, regarding whether he had obtained the necessary permits and ethical clearances for the work, were not included in the decision, and that a prosecutor was conducting a preliminary inquiry on those issues.”

In addition to these unresolved issues, the Karolinska wasn’t exactly thrilled with how some of the work had been by done by Macchiarini:

“But the report said that Dr. Macchiarini’s work “does not meet the university’s high quality standards in every respect,” and that it “could therefore be appropriate” for him to submit corrections to some of the published scientific papers that described his work.”

The NYT was able to reach him by email in Russia, where he is now working, for comment on the resolution of the misconduct charges:

“To have been falsely accused of such serious misconduct is every researcher’s nightmare,” he said. “I am very keen that this case prompts a discussion of how such events can be avoided in the future.”

The original investigator, Dr. Gerdin, apparently was not made privy to the new documents of the Karolinska investigation and hence couldn’t comment on the new decision, but he didn’t seem pleased with today’s outcome according to a piece in Science:

“Gerdin says he has not yet read the material submitted in response to his report. But he says the process was flawed, in that it allowed Macchiarini to pull “aces from his sleeve” after the external investigation was complete. That seriously undermined the impartiality of the investigation, he says. “It’s a meaningless process” to commission an independent external reviewer if the final decision is based on documents available only to Karolinska officials, he says.”

In past years, Macchiarini had faced charges in Italy as well, where he reportedly had been arrested (also see news piece in Italian) and related to this some of his work was retracted. I was not able to determine the outcome of the charges in Italy so far, but some have speculated that that was a case of an overzealous Italian prosecutor going after a famous surgeon.

It remains unclear what comes next for the super surgeon, but at least overall Macchiarini appears to have been cleared of the most serious allegations stemming from the Karolinska situation.

Best case in favor of germline human genetic modification?

Human genetic modification

Flying out of Portland Airport yesterday, I saw these magazines side by side.

Hmmm.

That’s a humorous juxtaposition and the two covers are oddly similar in design.

It go me thinking…

Could using germline human genetic modification be a wise thing to do in some cases?

After all, humanity in many ways has serious flaws. Could we try to make Homo sapiens a better species via, for instance, CRISPR’ing embryos for “better” traits and removing possibly negative traits?

Of course attempts at making “better” people could yield worse results than already naturally occur.

So have I been wrong about supporting a moratorium against heritable human modification?

I don’t think so.

Still, this peculiar pairing of magazine covers made me laugh and think.

Stem cells “wild ride” in space capsule

stem cells space

Engineers work on capsule. Credit: Terminal Velocity Aerospace

Stem cells took a trip near to space in a test capsule and reportedly returned alive and apparently well.

What was the story with the stem cells being tested in this way for future time in space? Space.com reports:

The RED-4U capsule was created by Terminal Velocity Aerospace (TVA) to return science experiments to Earth and carried a cargo of adult stem cells, which can grow into any cell type. The cells, provided by the Mayo Clinic, are thriving despite a parachute’s deployment issue, the company’s CEO said. The failure’s cause is being investigated, but is not related to the parachute design.

Sound pretty cool despite the parachute glitch, but what comes next is a quote in the piece from the TVA CEO that seems to either be a mistake or hype:

“There is evidence, from prior testing, that they will grow up to 10 times faster in space and have higher purity and other advantages as well.”

Ten times faster? I don’t think a ten-fold increase in adult stem cell growth is probably even possible unless the cells were unusually slow to grow in the first place. For instance, if the stem cells doubled ever two days or 48 hours normally, a ten-fold boost in growth would mean doubling every 4.8 hours. I don’t see how that’s possible given what we know about cell biology and division. Even cancer cells in general do not grow that fast.

More on this project sounds very cool though:

“The Mayo Clinic has a $300,000 grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to develop techniques for growing stem cells in space, but a flight date has not been announced. CASIS manages the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory.”

I hope they can get the project into space sooner rather than later and am excited to see what they learn from the experiment. There have been past trips for stem cells into space that were quite interesting and CASIS has had a funding program for this kind of research, which is great.

Did NHK, Japan’s PBS, Violate Human Rights of Obakata (小保方 晴子) over STAP?

Obokata press conference

Obokata late press conference

The Japanese public broadcasting system, NHK, has been accused by scientist Haruko Obokata of violating her human rights.

Obokata was the primary researcher involved in the STAP cell fiasco in which two ultimately retracted Nature papers contained duplicated, plagiarized, and manipulated data. She was certainly not the only researcher on those papers, but overall she has been accused of having the most central role in the STAP problems. Obokata left RIKEN late in 2014.

During the height of the STAP cell mess the Japanese media hounded Obokata and other STAP cell authors including Yoshiki Sasai, who ultimately committed suicide. From accounts in Japan, the STAP cell story was on the equivalent of the nightly news and on the front of national newspapers and tabloids almost every day for a time.

For instance, NHK was incredibly persistent with pursing Obokata and now Obokata has said that they violated her human rights in a complaint to the Japanese Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization or BPO. Obokata asserts that NHK violated her rights in numerous ways including accusing her of stealing embryonic stem cells and she sustained injuries while being pursued by NHK. BPO will be investigating these and other assertions by Obokata against NHK.

During the STAP cell mess last year, it seems because I was covering the STAP cell claims and science here on this blog, many members of the Japanese media emailed and called me. I can understand that they were looking for information and perspectives, but it went out of control in certain cases. Some, including reporters saying they were from NHK, were very aggressive with me. They some persistently called me at work and even at home in the middle of the night.

I had decided to not talk with them because of their aggressiveness and their tendency to focus on negative, personal stories rather than the science and facts, but they wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Several pursued me for comment at conferences too. I don’t have direct knowledge of what happened with Obokata and NHK, but my sense is that the media went way out of bounds on STAP and made it personal.