[Editor's Note: This is the first comprehensive account of the whistleblowers' side of a scandal that rocked the most hallowed halls in science – the same establishment that just last week awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. This still-unfolding saga is a cautionary tale about corruption, hype, and power that raises profound questions about how to uphold integrity in scientific research.]
When the world-famous Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm hired Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, he was considered a star surgeon and groundbreaking stem cell researcher. Handsome, charming and charismatic, Macchiarini was known as a trailblazer in a field that holds hope for curing a vast array of diseases.
It appeared that Macchiarini's miracle cure was working just as expected.
He claimed that he was regenerating human windpipes by seeding plastic scaffolds with stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow—a holy grail in medicine because the body will not reject its own cells. For patients who had trouble breathing due to advanced illness, a trachea made of their own cells would be a game-changer. Supposedly, the bone marrow cells repopulated the synthetic scaffolds with functioning, mucus-secreting epithelial cells, creating a new trachea that would become integrated into the patient's respiratory system as a living, breathing part. Macchiarini said as much in a dazzling presentation to his new colleagues at Karolinska, which is home to the Nobel Assembly – the body that has awarded the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine since 1901.
Karl-Henrik Grinnemo was a young cardiothoracic surgeon and researcher at Karolinska in 2010, when Macchiarini was hired. "He gave a fantastic presentation with lots of animation and everyone was impressed," Grinnemo says of his first encounter with Macchiarini. Grinnemo's own work focused on heart and aortic valve regeneration, also in the field of stem cell research. He and his colleagues were to help establish an interdisciplinary umbrella organization, under Macchiarini's leadership, called the Advanced Center for Translational Regenerative Medicine, which would aim to deliver cures from Karolinska's world-class laboratories to the bedsides of patients in desperate need.
Whistleblower Karl-Henrik Grinnemo and the Karolinska Institute.
Little did Grinnemo know that when KI hired Macchiarini, they had ignored a warning that the star surgeon had been accused of scientific misconduct by a colleague who had worked with him at the University of Florence. That blind eye would eventually cost three patients their lives in Sweden.
"A MIRACLE CURE"?
It has been said that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and it wasn't long before Macchiarini announced that he had a patient in dire need of one of the new artificial tracheas. The patient, a native of Eritrea who had emigrated to Iceland, had a slowly growing tumor on his trachea. Macchiarini had previously generated new windpipes from human donor tracheas outside of Sweden, but the Icelandic patient was the first to receive a synthetic trachea implant at Karolinska University Hospital. Macchiarini had already performed a similar procedure with decellularized donor tracheas on other patients around Europe, but not much was known at the time about their outcomes.
Of course, to justify a radical procedure such as removing a patient's trachea, one would need compelling evidence of effectiveness in animal studies, as well as an exhaustion of all other treatment alternatives. Macchiarini claimed that both conditions were met. He performed the implantation of the synthetic trachea as if he had received a hospital exemption. This is comparable to what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies as "compassionate use," a procedure performed only in extreme circumstances, usually when the patient is terminal, and when no available alternative has worked.
Macchiarini personally invited Grinnemo to watch the all-day surgery, and, once the transplant was done after 10 grueling hours, Macchiarini asked him to close the patient. Then the 36-year-old man was transferred to another hospital, where Grinnemo and other attending physicians had little opportunity to follow his long-term recovery.
Two months later, Macchiarini approached Grinnemo with an invitation to be one of multiple co-authors on a paper about the case targeted for the New England Journal of Medicine. This was a huge opportunity for a junior researcher, and Grinnemo gladly agreed to write a one-month follow-up report on the Icelandic patient's clinical condition. He consulted the patient's medical records, which described a man with an infection in one lung but otherwise doing well, and wrote up his contribution. The patient had already been transferred back to Iceland by then and was home from the hospital. It appeared that Macchiarini's miracle cure was working just as expected.
But the ground was beginning to shake.
"We cannot find one word of evidence that points to regeneration induced by stem cells."
On September 2, 2011, three months after the Icelandic patient's surgery, a professor in Leuven, Belgium sent a written warning to KI's vice chancellor, Harriett Wallberg-Henriksson, stating that Macchiarini was guilty of prior research misconduct. This letter was forwarded to the new president at KI, professor Anders Hamsten, urging him to put a halt to more synthetic trachea implants. The accusations were grave.
Professor Pierre Delaere at Kathiolieke Universiteit asserted that synthetic tracheas coated with bone marrow cells did not, as Macchiarini had claimed, transform into living tracheas. He cited "countless" failures in animal experiments and called the outcome of Macchiarini's previous human surgeries "disastrous…half the patients died. The others are in a palliative setting….We cannot find one word of evidence that points to regeneration induced by stem cells."
Once again, KI simply ignored the warning, and Grinnemo and the 24 co-authors on the splashy academic paper about the latest surgery didn't even know about it. In the meantime, the New England Journal of Medicine rejected it for lacking a longer follow-up on the patients and missing data on how well the implants had integrated with the patient's respiratory system, so Macchiarini submitted it to The Lancet instead.
And he kept performing his experimental surgeries.
Soon there was a second transplant patient, a 30-year-old American man named Christopher Lyles. After his operation at KI, he returned to the U.S and the Swedish doctors were unable to follow his progress. Three months after his surgery, they learned that he had died at his home.
Paolo Macchiarini with Christopher Lyles, the American patient on whom he performed a trachea transplant in Stockholm in 2011. Lyles died a few months later.
Only four months after Lyles died, the third patient, a 22-year-old Turkish woman, received one of Macchiarini's grafts. In all three patients, Macchiarini had claimed that they were in dire straights—terminal if not for the hope of a trachea transplant, and he claimed a hospital exemption in all three cases. In fact, Grinnemo says, all three had been in stable condition before their surgeries—a reality Macchiarini did not share with his collaborators and co-authors on two academic papers about the surgeries that were subsequently published in The Lancet.
The Turkish woman's story is especially tragic. The young woman had initially undergone surgery elsewhere to fix an unrelated problem—hand sweating--but wound up with an accidentally damaged trachea that set her on a course of utter devastation. She sought help from Macchiarini, but his graft operation left her "living in hell," says Grinnemo. In intensive care afterward, her airways were producing so much mucus that they had to be cleared every four hours around the clock. The procedure "is like someone keeping your head under water every fourth hour until you almost suffocate to death. This is something that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy," says Grinnemo.
By the spring of 2013, six months after Macchiarini's operation, the graft began to collapse. Several metal stents were inserted into her airways, but each one only worked for a short while. Macchiarini decided to remove the first plastic trachea and implant a new one. It seemed she couldn't get any worse, but after the second transplant, the young woman further deteriorated. Her airway secretions only increased; she had to undergo thousands of bronchoscopies, where an instrument was pushed down her throat into her lungs, and hundreds of surgeries during her three-year stint in the intensive care unit. Her body couldn't tolerate much more.
The whistleblowers realized that, despite Macchiarini's claims of successful operations in several now-published papers, the patients had been mutilated.
Grinnemo, together with fellow KI physicians Matthias Corbascio, Oscar Simonson and Thomas Fux, who were all involved in the care of the Turkish woman, became alarmed when the Icelandic patient came back to their hospital in the fall of 2013 with similar complaints. They realized that, despite Macchiarini's claims of successful operations in several now-published papers, the patients had been mutilated.
Both the Icelandic patient and the Turkish woman were too incapacitated to speak for themselves, so in the late fall of 2013, Grinnemo and his three concerned colleagues reached out to the patients' relatives seeking permission to review their medical records. It took weeks to receive the permissions, but once they did, what they found stunned them.
The Icelandic patient had developed fistulas (holes) between the artificial trachea and his esophagus, and had been fitted with several stents. Soon his esophagus also had to be removed, which Macchiarini was aware of. He should have reported these complications in the articles on which he was lead author, Grinnemo contends, and also should have informed his co-authors, each of whom had been responsible for writing up discrete sections of the papers. But Macchiarini had described each transplant as a success and had greatly exaggerated, if not outright lied, about how each patient had fared.
THE WHISTLEBLOWERS FIGHT BACK
Grinnemo and several other suspicious colleagues decided to launch an investigation. The result was a 500-page report identifying the synthetic tracheas as the problem and revealing that Macchiarini had falsified data and suppressed critical information in his reporting. He had even invented biopsies of the grafts, claiming that the marrow cells had populated them with functioning epithelial cells, while there was no real evidence of the patients' cells growing to line the tracheas.
The whistleblowers also discovered that Macchiarini had never received ethical clearance from Sweden's Human Ethical Review Board, nor had he gotten approval for his plastic tracheas from the Medical Product Agency, the Swedish counterpart to the FDA. He had relied entirely on his ability to do the surgeries under the hospital exemption, which he made everyone believe that he had obtained thanks to his star power.
What Macchiarini was doing, the investigators realized, was experimentation on living human subjects; he had circumvented the normal oversight protocols that exist to protect such subjects.
At a procedural meeting with his colleagues, including Dr. Ulf Lockowandt, the head of Karolinska University Hospital's Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Macchiarini dismissed the patients' complications as "manageable."
But among the large interdisciplinary team whose members had knowledge only of their own discrete specialties, doubts about Macchiarini's technique were festering. Complications in the patients only worsened when the tracheas inevitably began to collapse. There was a bursting open of sutures, holes in tissues adjacent to the implants, the disintegration of tissues that clogged bronchial passages. In far more than half of all the patients Macchiarini had operated on in several countries, patients died a lingering and agonizing death.
The last thing the whistleblowers expected was for the full weight of the institution to come crashing down against them.
When Grinnemo and his fellow investigators dug all this up, they decided they had to report it to the very top of Karolinska, to the institute's president, Anders Hamsten, so that he could stop Macchiarini from performing any further transplants. The last thing the whistleblowers expected was for the full weight of the institution to come crashing down against them.
"THEY WANTED TO SILENCE EVERYTHING"
KI had ample reason to sweep criticisms of Macchiarini under the rug. Up to 100 patients were about to be recruited for an international clinical study in which Macchiarini would do his implants—a nightmarish prospect considering his track record. But KI stood to receive millions of dollars in a government grant to conduct the study across Europe and Russia.
Still other incentives existed for KI to suppress Macchiarini's record. Plans were underway to establish a stem cell center in Hong Kong with over $45 million provided by a wealthy Chinese businessman. At the center, Macchiarini would be able to do his trachea transplants on patients in Asia. And in addition to the financial incentives to keep Macchiarini's brand associated with KI, many high-powered individuals were involved in his initial recruitment and didn't want their reputations tarnished, Grinnemo says. KI not only ignored the whistleblowers' allegations; punishment against them was swift and decisive.
On March 7, 2014, Grinnemo and the other whistleblowers met with Dr. Hamsten, in addition to two of Macchiarini's supervisors and the director of KI's Regenerative Network. They presented their findings and requested an official investigation by KI, including scrutiny of the now-six published research papers in which Macchiarini had claimed the success of his implants in humans. The whistleblowers also told the leadership about some rat studies Macchiarini had published in a prestigious journal that appeared to rely on falsified data.
Instead of the welcoming reception they expected, the room bristled with hostility. "I basically forced them to agree to an investigation," Grinnemo says, "but it was a very tough meeting. The feeling I got was that they wanted to silence everything and that they would continue to silence me and the other whistleblowers. We were already feeling the backlash."
From the left, whistleblowers Matthias Corbascio, Oscar Simonson, Thomas Fux and Karl-Henrik Grinnemo.
Previously, Grinnemo had confronted Macchiarini with questions about patients he had implanted in Russia prior to his stint at Karolinska. "Paolo Macchiarini realized we were onto something and he became very angry. He said he would do everything in his power to make my life miserable," Grinnemo recalls.
Macchiarini made good on his threat by filing a complaint about Grinnemo with the Swedish Research Council, the main funder of research in Sweden. At the time, Macchiarini and Grinnemo had jointly submitted a grant application on an aortic valve regeneration project, which the Council had approved. Macchiarini suddenly complained that Grinnemo had stolen his data on aortic valve regeneration, even though, unlike Grinnemo, Macchiarini was not a heart surgeon and had conducted no research on heart structures. In reality, all of the data had been generated by Grinnemo. The Council did a review and concluded that Grinnemo had not stolen the data, but Macchiarini spread rumors throughout KI that the young researcher was guilty of scientific misconduct. "He wanted to discredit me because he knew I was dangerous and he wanted to stop anyone from believing me," Grinnemo says.
In spite of the findings from the Council that he had committed no scientific misconduct, KI opened an investigation—not of Macchiarini, but of Grinnemo himself. It soon became clear that KI also wanted to discredit Grinnemo and to silence any possible rumors about Macchiarini's conduct. The whistleblowers continued to push forward, however, and over a period of several weeks they wrote to president Hamsten four times, asking that KI investigate the deadly transplants still being promoted by Macchiarini as some kind of miracle cure.
After four written requests, Hamsten replied that if the whistleblowers had concerns about Macchiarini, they should contact their supervisors or write a formal complaint. But the whistleblowers had already contacted several individuals in supervisory roles who had made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with the affair. It was obvious that KI would resist any investigation of Macchiarini and that no one, outside of the whistleblowers, wanted to take any responsibility for what could amount to a major scandal at one of the world's most powerful academic institutions.
The whistleblowers had another hostile and unproductive meeting with several doctors at KI with whom they shared a letter they had written to the journal Nature Communications, which published Macchiarini's article on rat experimentation, urging them to investigate whether he had falsified the data. Once again, the whistleblowers met with a wall of resistance. Grinnemo was now discredited because of the aortic valve grant application, the doctors reminded him, and no investigation or retraction of the Nature Communications article would be pursued.
In June 2014, KI made its retaliation against Grinnemo official by putting its legal counsel in charge of its investigation of his grant application. The university's ethical board then concluded that Grinnemo should have informed Macchiarini more clearly that he submitted the application to the Swedish Research Council and that he should have obtained a written acceptance from Macchiarini before proceeding with the application. KI could not find Grinnemo guilty of research misconduct, but accused him of "carelessness" regarding the usage of data—which was his own data all along.
A few years later, Grinnemo was totally cleared by both the Central Ethical Review Board and KI. However, the rumors surrounding the investigation and the finding that he hadn't "used data correctly" in a grant application had done their damage to his reputation. Since then, he has not received a single research grant. "You can't appeal the findings," Grinnemo says. "I don't know if I will ever get more research money. I'm totally dead."
The whistleblowers made multiple appeals to Dr. Lockowandt, the head of the Department of Cardiothoracic surgery, for an investigation into Macchiarini's implants, but they were stonewalled from the beginning. Lockowandt did nothing.
"The heads of departments at the KUH and KI didn't actually have that much power," Grinnemo explains. "Dr. Lockowandt thought he was fighting for his own career and position. He's basically a good person who decided to go the route of an administrator, and if you have conflicts with your superiors, your career will be over." In other words, a real investigation of Macchiarini's record could not happen with so much money and prestige riding on the continued presence of the star surgeon.
By August 11, 2014, the whistleblowers had made repeated requests of Dr. Hamsten for a meeting to present the data inconsistencies between Macchiarini's patients' medical records and what he had reported in numerous articles, all published in prestigious medical journals. When they finally received the answer—a cold instruction to submit a written notification to the heads of their departments—it was clear that KI was giving them the runaround.
But rather than simply ignore the whistleblowers, KI apparently decided to double down, trying to discredit them in an intimidation campaign.
KI even went so far as to force the chief medical officer of Karolinska University Hospital, Johan Bratt, to report the whistleblowers to Swedish police, claiming that they violated the law and the patients' privacy when they went through the patients´ charts and submitted their appeals for investigation to KI and the Central Ethical Review Board. KI claimed that their report revealed the identities of patients, even though they had been careful to anonymize all the information. The police interrogated several of the whistleblowers and concluded that they had done no wrong, but the incident made it clear how low KI would sink in its desire to harass them.
"You can't appeal the findings. I don't know if I will ever get more research money. I'm totally dead."
In private, Grinnemo's colleagues supported him, but feared coming forward out of the fear of losing their jobs. Grinnemo himself was in a tough spot. "I knew it would be difficult for me to do research but I hoped my position as a surgeon was secure," he says. "But after the New York Times article, I realized even that position was not as safe as I had thought."
THE MEDIA CATCHES ON -- WITH A PRICE
On November 24, 2014, The New York Times published a front-page story about Paolo Macchiarini based on the whistleblowers' investigation, which had leaked to the press. Officials at KI suspected one or more of the whistleblowers of being the leakers, but the publicity forced the top brass to at least appear to act. The next day they asked Dr. Bengt Gerdin, a professor of surgery at Sweden's Uppsala University, to do an investigation of Dr. Macchiarini. It's hard not to conclude that, after months of stonewalling on an institutional investigation, the Times article compelled them to do something. But KI still did not take any of the pressure off of Grinnemo and his three fellow whistleblowers.
One by one, each was informed that he would receive a formal warning from Dr. Lockowandt, the head of the cardiothoracic clinic, alleging that they had violated patient privacy by reading medical records. The whistleblowers countered that they had informed consents. They also asked for a meeting with Lockowandt and KI's attorneys, to which they brought a union representative and someone from the Swedish version of the American Medical Association. The union representative informed KI's attorneys that the doctors were actually required by law to consult a patient's medical records when the patient's life is in danger. Not doing so would have been a crime. Karolinska backed off on the formal warnings (which would have been the last step before actual termination) after that. But they found other ways to retaliate.
One whistleblower, Oscar Simonson, had been offered a residency at Karolinska University Hospital, but that offer was withdrawn without explanation. Grinnemo had expected to receive an advisor position in cardiothoracic surgery, but that promotion also evaporated. In addition, the number of surgeries he was tapped to perform was reduced and he was relegated to doing the "less popular" standard heart surgeries that began late in the afternoon and evenings.
The grinding day-to-day pressure on the whistleblowers never let up. On December 19, 2014, Dr. Lockowandt informed all four that they had been on the verge of being fired, but that hospital attorneys changed their minds at the last minute. By then not only were their reputations in tatters, but they had invested an estimated 10,000 hours of labor investigating Macchiarini's misconduct, appealing to KI, and defending themselves against KI's harassment.
When interviewed for this article, Grinnemo said, "I have never had a single day of vacation from this situation. In addition to dealing with it, I've been doing surgery and taking care of patients. I've had trouble sleeping, and it has affected my family. I haven't been able to focus on my family, and I feel guilty toward my kids." Of all the whistleblowers, Grinnemo seems to have received the brunt of the backlash.
KI was finally pushed to further action by yet more negative coverage of the Macchiarini affair in the media. In January 2015, Swedish National Television aired an exposé covering the Macchiarini surgeries and the desperate plight of the patients. In response, the Swedish public demanded that KI make a course correction. On February 19, KI withdrew all of its threats of formal warnings to the whistleblowers.
As the press event began, KI called the heads of the whistleblowers' departments to tell them to make sure the four didn't attend.
However, progress was incremental. On April 16, KI's ethical committee, which had done its own investigation, acquitted Macchiarini of allegations of scientific misconduct. This is the same university ethical board that had reprimanded Grinnemo over his usage of data in the aortic valve grant application.
The whistleblowers maintain that throughout the summer of 2015, KI was still far more focused on covering up the Macchiarini affair than on getting to the bottom of it. On May 13, the professor from Uppsala submitted the results of his independent investigation, in which he concluded that seven out of seven published articles in which Macchiarini was the lead author entailed the fabrication of data.
KI ignored the report. In August 2015, KI's president announced that Macchiarini had been cleared of all charges of scientific misconduct and that, magically, ethical approvals existed for the patient from Iceland. Macchiarini got a reprimand for being "a little sloppy" in his published descriptions of his patients. Then KI, eager to placate the public and salvage its reputation, held a press conference to announce the presumed innocence of its star surgeon.
As the press event began, KI called the heads of the whistleblowers' departments to tell them to make sure the four didn't attend, according to Grinnemo.
"They seemed to think we would come crashing in to the press conference and make a scene. It's ridiculous, but that's what they thought," says Grinnemo.
Around this time, KI asked that the whistleblowers compile and forward all of their correspondence with the independent investigator on the grounds that they were suspected of manipulating his investigation. The accusation went nowhere; the whistleblowers had barely spoken with him.
Then came a request from KI's IT department for the whistleblowers to compile and submit all of their emails for the preceding year. They were simply told that "an anonymous person" had made the request.
Throughout 2015, KI continued to go after the whistleblowers aggressively. That August, they were so discouraged that they felt they would never obtain any additional grants from the Swedish Research Council or any other funding organizations, and that their academic careers were over. To add insult to injury, a Swedish newspaper published an article defending Macchiarini and concluding that he was not guilty of violating the Helsinki Declaration, a statute put into effect after World War II protecting all humans from unauthorized medical experimentation.
THE TIDE TURNS, BUT REDEMPTION IS ELUSIVE
Then in November, they received a request from a Swedish filmmaker to be interviewed about the Macchiarini affair. Not knowing what angle the film was expected to take, they each put in hours in front of the camera. They wouldn't know the results of their interviews until January 2016, when the three-part documentary, "The Experiments," aired on Swedish television. The film documented the tortuous death of a Russian woman and the suffering of other patients who had received Macchiarini's implants.
That same month, a devastating article on Paolo Macchiarini was published in the American magazine Vanity Fair. Titled "The Celebrity Surgeon Who Used Love, Money and the Pope to Scam an NBC News Producer," the article revealed Macchiarini as an even more prolific fabulist and liar than anyone had remotely suspected. Not only did he fabricate data for multiple scientific papers, he had also lied about everything from his alleged medical training and celebrity connections to his personal relationship status.
Ironically, the woman who ultimately dismantled Macchiarini was Benita Alexander, a former producer for NBC News who was at one point engaged to marry him in a lavish ceremony that Macchiarini promised would be officiated by Pope Francis. Except that he didn't know the Pope, and he was already married to one woman and living with another.
Her story of heartbreak infuriated the public. The full list of people who had believed Macchiarini's almost countless fabrications may never be known—a tribute to his considerable personal charisma. But after the "The Experiments" and the Vanity Fair article, the public had had enough of Paolo Macchiarini. They demanded that KI's president step down and that Macchiarini be fired.
TV producer Benita Alexander appeared as a guest on Dr. Oz's show on February 14th, 2018 to discuss Dr. Macchiarini's deception. "He railroaded my life," she said.
In February 2016, there was a cascade of resignations and firings at KI. First, president Anders Hamsten stepped down. Then several top KI officials, including the General Secretary of the Nobel Assembly, the Dean of Research, and an advisor to KI's president, were either fired or stepped down. On March 3, several members of the board were replaced. The whistleblowers received an award for coming forward by an organization called Transparency International, but instead of heaving a sigh of relief, they only felt a continued sense of foreboding.
"We all felt very vulnerable because we knew that KI would retaliate in some way," says Grinnemo. A fellow whistleblower, Dr. Corbascio, gave an interview on a prime time news program saying that KI was a corrupt institution and should apologize to the patients' families and even pay them for their suffering. After that, both he and another colleague came under intensified scrutiny at work. They say that their supervisors, who were deeply involved in collaborations with Macchiarini, watched everything they did, apparently looking for a reason to fire them.
Grinnemo and Simonson both left KI to work for Uppsala University. But the lasting effects of the scandal followed them there. They still couldn't obtain any grants for new research, and other scientists at KI and elsewhere were unwilling to collaborate with them for fear of their own work being "tainted" by association.
On March 23, 2016, Paolo Macchiarini was finally sacked by KI. Still, the whistleblowers couldn't claim victory.
"Our aim," says Grinnemo, "was not to get him sacked but to stop the grafts, and we knew he would continue to do them in other countries. The clinical trial aiming to recruit 100 or so patients hadn't been halted. We tried to warn the Russian authorities and the EU grant office, and wanted them to stop the grant to Macchiarini. There was no response, so at that time we didn't know if the clinical trial would go forward."
Still, there was reason to hope. News of Macchiarini's scientific fraud, not to mention his personal debacle with Benita Alexander, had made its way around scientific circles in Germany and Britain, where a new investigation began.
Eventually, the entire board at Karolinska was replaced. Under its new president, the institute issued a decree this past summer finding the now thoroughly disgraced Macchiarini guilty of scientific misconduct, and concluding that six of his research papers should be retracted.
But in a cruelly ironic twist, KI took the whistleblowers' own investigation and turned it against them. KI's report found Grinnemo also guilty of scientific misconduct for apparently falling short in the care of the Icelandic patient, even though his role in the case had been minimal. It was like a punch in the gut, because the judgment cast Grinnemo as equally blameworthy to Macchiarini. It also failed to recognize that he had long ago not only withdrawn his name from the offending paper, but lobbied for years to have it retracted.
"This sends the message that whistleblowers in research will be punished. That's a serious problem."
The KI report also established the new category of "blameworthy" to describe two of the whistleblowers for their roles as co-authors in some of the papers. The whistleblowers did not receive a chance to respond to the new accusations before a decision was made to publicly reprimand them.
That decision can't be appealed.
Simonson told Science Magazine, "This sends the message that whistleblowers in research will be punished. That's a serious problem."
These days, Macchiarini is lying low but still publishing his supposed stem cell research, most recently on baboons. A paper published in March of this year in the Journal of Biomedical Materials lists his affiliation as Kazan Federal University in Russia, but in April 2017, the university fired him. He's rumored to be living in Italy and couldn't be reached for this article. He was investigated for criminal activity in Sweden and the case was closed without charges, but Grinnemo says that another prosecutor is now considering whether to bring charges against him for "aggravated manslaughter."
At KI, only Karin Dahlman Wright, who was the Institute's acting president during several months of these events, responded to a request for comment, but she claimed a near-total unawareness of the whistleblowers' narrative. Other officials there declined to be interviewed.
KI's clinical trial that was aiming to recruit new patients for biologically engineered tracheas is no longer happening. The European Commission posted on their research portal that the trial ended on March 31, 2017, stating: "Grant Agreement terminated."
As for Grinnemo, Simonson, Corbascio and Fux, they are still fighting for their careers. Grinnemo is currently suing KI for a chance to defend himself against its accusations of scientific misconduct. He's also claiming damages for lost grant funding, thousands of hours spent defending himself, and harm to his reputation. Whether he will prevail in court remains to be seen.
"KI did a very good job of destroying our careers," says Simonson. "They didn't do anything else well, but they did a very thorough job of that."
Rochelle "Shelley" Buffenstein has one of the world's largest, if not the largest, lab-dwelling colonies of the naked mole rat. (No one has done a worldwide tabulation, but she has 4,500 of them.) Buffenstein has spent decades studying the little subterranean-dwelling rodents. Over the years, she and her colleagues have uncovered one surprising discovery after another, which has led them to re-orient the whole field of anti-aging research.
Naked mole rats defy everything we thought we knew about aging. These strange little rodents from arid regions of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, live up to ten times longer than their size would suggest. And unlike virtually every other animal, they don't lose physical or cognitive abilities with age, and even retain their fertility up until the end of life. They appear to have active defenses against the ravages of time, suggesting that aging may not be inevitable. Could these unusual creatures teach humans how to extend life and ameliorate aging?
Buffenstein, who is senior principle investigator at Calico Life Sciences, has dedicated her life to finding out. Her early interest in the animals of what is now Zimbabwe led to her current position as a cutting-edge anti-aging researcher at Calico, the Google-funded health venture launched in 2013. The notoriously secretive company is focused on untangling the mysteries of why animals and people age, and whether there are ways to slow or temporarily arrest the process.
The small, wrinkly animal, which lives in underground burrows in the hot, arid regions of Africa, is hardly the beauty queen of the mammalian kingdom. Furless, buck-toothed and tiny-eyed, the creatures look like they could use a good orthodontist, a protective suit of clothes and possibly, some spectacles to enhance their eyesight. But these rats more than make up for their unimpressive looks with their superlative ability to adapt to some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth.
Based on the usual rule that body size predicts lifespan, naked mole rats shouldn't live that long. After all, similarly-sized rodents like mice have a life expectancy of two years or less. But Buffenstein was one of the first scientists to recognize that naked mole rats live an extraordinarily long time, with her oldest animal approaching 39 years of age. In addition, they never become geriatric in the human sense, defying the common signs of aging — age-related diseases, cognitive decline and even menopause. In fact, the queens, or females that do all the breeding in a bee-like underground colony, remain fertile and give birth to healthy pups up until what would be considered very old age in humans. And the naked mole rat has other curious abilities, such as the ability to endure extreme low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions like those they encounter in their underground nests.
"One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
It's not that the naked mole rat isn't subject to the vicissitudes of life, or the normal wear and tear of biological processes. Over the years, Buffenstein and her colleagues have discovered that, while the process of oxidative stress — thought for 50 years to be the main cause of aging — occurs in the naked mole rat just as in any other animal, its damage does not accumulate with age. Oxidative stress occurs during normal cell metabolism when oxygen "free radicals" with one or more unpaired electrons wreak havoc on large cellular molecules, leaving microscopic debris in their wake that clogs up the gears of healthy cell function. Somehow, naked mole rats have an enhanced ability to clear out the damaged cells and molecules before they can set off the usual chain reaction of cell dysfunction and death, according to a 2013 paper in which Buffenstein is the lead author.
Oxidative stress is not the only factor known to be problematic in aging. Slowly accumulating damage to DNA typically leads to protein malfunction and improper folding. In humans and most other animals, these protein fragments can accumulate in cells and gum up the works. Only not so much in naked mole rats, which are able to maintain normal protein folding throughout their long life. After years of discoveries like these, Buffenstein has gradually reframed her focus from "what goes wrong to produce aging?" to "what goes right in the naked mole rat to help it defy the normal wear and tear of life?" Buffenstein's research suggests that the tiny mammals have a unique ability to somehow clear out damaged protein fragments and other toxic debris before they can cause disease and aging.
How She Got Here
Buffenstein ascribes her initial acquaintance with the naked mole rat to serendipity. Back in 1979, her postgraduate mentor Jenny Jarvis at the University of Cape Town in South Africa kept a small colony of rats in her office while studying the mechanisms that lead to the animals' unusual adaptive capabilities. It was Buffenstein's job to take care of them. Working with Jarvis, Buffenstein focused on understanding their unique adaptations to the extreme conditions of their natural habitat.
They studied the unusual behaviors regulating the rat colonies. For instance, they observed that designated "workers" dig the entire colony's underground tunnels and a single reproducing female breeds with only a small number of males. Buffenstein also examined how these animals are able to survive without the "sunshine hormone" — vitamin D — and their unusual modes of regulating their internal temperatures and converting food into energy. Though classified as mammals, the rodents simply don't conform to the mammalian handbook, having found ingenuous ways to alter their bodies and behavior that is fine-tuned to the scorching heat and aridity of their environment.
To escape the heat, they simply burrow underground and live in elaborate tunnels. To cope with the low-oxygen conditions underground, they slowed their metabolism and learned to live for extended periods of time in such hypoxic conditions that an ordinary animal would quickly suffocate. But it was slowly dawning on Buffenstein that the small creatures were exceptional in additional ways.
When Buffenstein got her first academic position at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Jarvis said she could take some of the naked mole rats with her. When she did, Buffenstein noticed that the animals were living far longer than similarly sized rodents. "At that stage, they were about ten years old. Little did I know how long they would eventually show us they could live," she says.
In 1997, after accepting a position at the City College of New York, Buffenstein moved to the U.S. and took her rat colony with her. There she was able to pursue an evolving narrative about the humble naked mole rat that continued to defy expectations. As the years passed, it was becoming more and more evident that her observations could have major implications for aging research. Eventually, she took a position at the Barshop Institute for Aging and Longevity Studies in San Antonio, Texas.
One early observation of Buffenstein's suggested that the species most often used in aging research—mice, roundworms, fruit flies and yeast—have short lifespans and poor defenses against aging. These animals provide important insights into how aging works, and have revealed possible targets for intervention. But they don't show what goes right in apparently non-aging animals like the naked mole rat.
Buffenstein's years of studying the rats has laid the foundation for a whole new perspective in aging research.
"My hypothesis," she says, "is that naked mole rats are very good at removing damaged macromolecules and cells, thereby maintaining homeostasis and cell and tissue function. All the repair pathways examined by us and others in the field point to more efficient repair and more rapid responses to damaging agents." These include things like free radicals and radiation.
Some researchers today are building on Buffenstein's foundational discoveries to home in on possible anti-aging mechanisms that lead to the extraordinary resilience of naked mole rats. University of Cambridge researcher and co-founder of the institution's Naked Mole-Rat Initiative, Ewan St. John Smith, is studying the animal's resistance to cancer.
In a 2020 paper published in Nature, Smith and his colleagues established that naked mole rats harbor cancer-causing genes, and these genes occasionally create cancer cells. But something in the rats shuts the multiplication process down before the cells can grow out of control and form tumors. Now, scientists want to know what mechanisms, exactly, are at play in preventing the cells from invading healthy tissues. Smith has hypothesized that the answer is somehow embedded in interactions in the cells' microenvironment.
He also thinks the animal's immune system could just be very effective at seeking out and destroying cancer cells. Several current cancer therapies work by boosting the body's immune system so it can attack and eliminate the toxic cells. It's possible that the naked mole rat's immune system naturally goes into hyper-drive when cancer cells appear, enabling it to nip the disease in the bud before tumors can form. A pharmacologist by training, Smith thinks that if there is some chemical mediator in the naked mole rat that supercharges its immune cells, perhaps that mediator can be synthesized in a drug to treat humans for cancer.
The naked mole rat's extreme tolerance to hypoxia could also play a role. "Interestingly," he says, "when cells become cancerous, they also become hypoxic, and naked mole rats are known to be very resistant to hypoxia.
He notes that a form of low-level hypoxia is also present in the bodies and brains of both aged mice and older humans. It's commonly seen in the brains of humans with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of age-related dementia. This suggests that hypoxia in humans — and in other mammals — may have a role to play in Alzheimer's and the aging process itself. Resistance to hypoxia could be why the naked mole rat, in Smith's words, "chugs along quite happily" in conditions that in humans are associated with disease and decline.
Smith cheerfully acknowledges his debt to Buffenstein for laying so much of the groundwork in a field rife with possible implications for anti-aging. "Shelley is amazing," he says. "Naked mole rats have a queen and I always refer to her as the queen of the naked mole rat world." In fact, Buffenstein gave Smith his first colony of rats, which he's since grown to about 150. "Some of them will still be around when I retire," he jokes.
Vera Gorbunova, a professor of biology and oncology at the University of Rochester who studies both longevity and cancer in naked mole rats, credits Buffenstein with getting others to study the animals for anti-aging purposes. Gorbunova believes that "cancer and aging go hand-in-hand" and that longer-lived animals have better, more accurate DNA repair.
Gorbunova is especially interested in the naked mole rat's ability to secrete a superabundance of a "super-sugar" molecule called hyaluronan, a ubiquitous additive to skin creams for its moisturizing effect. Gorbunova and others have observed that the presence of high concentrations of hyaluronan in the naked mole rat's extracellular matrix — the chemical-rich solution between cells — prevents the overcrowding of cells. This, perhaps, could be the key to the animal's ability to stop tumors from forming.
Hyaluronan is also present in the extracellular matrix of humans, but the naked mole rat molecule is more than five times larger than the versions found in humans or mice, and is thought to play a significant part in the animal's DNA repair. But just rubbing a cream containing hyaluronan over your skin won't stop cancer or aging. High concentrations of the substance in the extracellular matrix throughout your body would likely be needed.
Gorbunova notes that the naked mole rat offers a multitude of possibilities that could eventually lead to drugs to slow human aging. "I'm optimistic that there are many different strategies, because the naked mole rat likely has many processes going on that fight aging," she says. "I think that in a relatively short time, there will be bonafide treatments to test in animals. One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
So if naked mole rats don't become frail with age or develop age-related diseases, what does kill them? The answer, unfortunately, is usually other naked mole rats. Buffenstein has long noted that even though they live in highly cooperative colonies, they can be quite cantankerous when there's a disruption in the hierarchy, a sentiment echoed by Gorbunova. "Sometimes there are periods of peace and quiet, but if something happens to the queen, all hell breaks loose," she says. "If the queen is strong, everybody knows their place," but if the queen dies, the new queen is inevitably decided by violent competition.
To the casual observer, a strange, wrinkly rodent like the naked mole rat might seem to have little to teach us about ourselves, but Buffenstein is confident that her discoveries could have major implications for human longevity research. Today, at Calico's labs in San Francisco, she's focused entirely on the determining how anti-aging defense mechanisms in the rats could lead to similar defenses being stimulated or introduced in humans.
"The million-dollar question is, what are the mechanisms protecting against aging, and can these be translated into therapies to delay or abrogate human aging, too?"
Buffenstein fired up a new generation of scientists with multiple discoveries, especially the fundamental one that naked mole rats are subject to the same wear and tear over time as the rest of us, but somehow manage to reverse it. These days, the trailblazer is at work on untangling the molecular mechanisms involved in the animal's resistance to cardiac aging. On top of everything else, the small creature has a unique ability to fight off the scourge of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world.
After all, the point is not to extend old age, but to slow down aging itself so that frailty and disability are compressed into a brief period after a long-extended period of vitality. By switching the focus from what goes wrong to mechanisms that defend against aging in the first place, the discoveries of Buffenstein and a new generation of researchers who are building on her groundbreaking research promise to be a driving force in the quest to extend not only life, but healthy, vigorous life in humans.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."