Call for the Nobel Prize in Medicine to be temporarily suspended

4:51 min

With only 27 days until the winner of Nobel Prize in Medicine is announced, the scandal involving Dr. Paolo Macchiarini and the Karolinska Institute has raised questions about the prize’s integrity.

The Nobel Assembly is made of 50 professors from the Karolinska Institute (KI). Five of those members are elected to the Nobel Committee which evaluates nominees for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Earlier this year, Harriet Wallberg, former head of KI and a member of the Assembly, and Urban Lendahl, Secretary-General of the Assembly, "stepped back" from their positions while the investigation into the disgraced surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was conducted.

Following a scathing report from KI this week, the Nobel Assembly's Secretary Thomas Perlmann announced that Wallberg and Lendahl would be asked to officially resign. But they are not the only ones, two other members of the Noble Assembly who were also involved in Macchiarini's appointment are also being forced to resign from their positions.

Dr. Bo Risberg, Professor Emeritus and ethics expert, has called the Macchiarini scandal is the "Chernobyl of ethics" and has suggested that the prize should be temporarily suspended. According to Risberg, the recent resignations go some way in order to restore the confidence in the institute, but it is not enough.

"Especially outside Sweden, the Nobel Prize is intimately linked to the Karolinska Institute... This is the largest medical scandal in Sweden ever, of course it has some implications for the Nobel Prize," Risberg told Radio Sweden.

Referring to the two independent reports that have been published over the past week, detailing what went wrong at the Karolinska University Hospital as well as the Karolinska Institute, Risberg called for radical changes to try to repair the damage that has been done.

"I think that to give an apology to the patients and their families and also to the scientific society, it would be a nice way to present an apology by putting a moratorium for two years to the Nobel prize," said Risberg.

Background Paolo Macchiarini was employed by the Karolinska Institute between 2010 and 2016, and also by the Karolinska University Hospital. During that time he performed operations to insert artificial windpipes into three patients, two of whom died. The third patient is being treated in intensive care at a hospital in the US.

In the beginning of this year, Swedish Television aired the documentary series The Experiments about Macchiarini's work and in February, then Karolinska Institute principal Anders Hamsten resigned as a consequence of the revelations around the surgeon.

Earlier this week, an independent report into the role the Karolinska Institute had in all this, criticised the Institute, among others for recruiting Macchiarini in the first place, despite an overwhelming amount of negative references, and for the questionable manner in which his contract was extended in 2013.

"A long chain of wrong decisions or lack of decisions made it possible for a guest professor to break rules and ethical principles," said acting vice-chancellor Karin Dahlman-Wright in a statement.