Macchiarini scandal and the impact on the Nobel

3:27 min

The Macchiarini affair has been labeled the “biggest scandal” in Swedish medicine and some believe it has tarnished the reputation of the Nobel Assembly and the Nobel Prize. However, a writer for science magazine Nature thinks that is more true in Sweden than abroad.

The 2016 Nobel Week kicks off Monday, when the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is announced. The laureate is selected by a committee of professors at the Karolinska Institute – the prestigious institution which has come under fire over the past year for its role in hiring disgraced surgeon Paolo Macchiarini.

Earlier this month, two former presidents of the Karolinska Institute were dropped from the Nobel Assembly due to their roles in the controversy around Macchiarini. The Assembly hands out the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Commentators have said that the scandal will tarnish not just the reputation of Karolinska but of the Nobel, too. However, Alison Abbott, a writer for the international science weekly Nature, believes that, outside of Sweden, people will not necessarily make the link between Macchiarini and the Nobel Prize.

"When people think of the Karolinska Institute, they will also remember Macchiarini… But they won't necessarily make the jump from that to the Nobel Prize," Abbott said.

Macchiarini was the first surgeon to perform a transplant of a biosynthetic trachea, but out of the nine patients that received the treatment, in Sweden and elsewhere, seven have died. The two still alive have had their synthetic tracheas removed and replaced with a windpipe from a donor. It transpired that Macchiarini had performed the operations without proper ethical approval.

In interviewing influential scientists from around the world about the scandal, Abbot found that many think the Nobel Committee has dealt with the situation in a professional manner.

"The general feeling is that the scandal itself was unbelievable. It is unbelievable that it should happen in such a sober and respected institute like the Karolinska, but that the Nobel Committee took all the right steps to eliminate from its assembly the people who were involved - even tangentially - in the Macchiarini scandal," said Abbott.

In Sweden, there have been calls for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to be temporarily suspended. A former chairman of the Swedish Ethics Council, professor emeritus Bo Risberg, suggested the prize money should to go to Macchiarini's patients and their families.

Speaking to Radio Sweden earlier this month, Risberg said there should be a moratorium for two years on the Nobel Prize, by way of apologising to the patients and their families, as well as to the scientific community.

Abbott, on her part, has not heard of any such calls from scientists.

"It is sort of understandable because people were harmed in quite unforgivable ways by this scandal,” Abbott said, “but I am not so sure the Nobel Prize should be drawn into this. The gesture would be sort of nice, but the prize is actually very, very important for the world of science. It is something that brings the world of science together, it is something to strive for, it something that I think would be missed quite a lot if a year was omitted."

So will the scandal affect who will get this year's Nobel Prize? Will the Assembly steer clear of any scientific field that even remotely can be connected to the work of Paolo Macchiarini? Abbot doubts it.

"I would not imagine so,” Abbot said. “Of course nobody can guess, and that is the joy of it; it is a very intriguing thing the Nobel price. There is never a leak. So I can only imagine from my experience...that it wouldn't change things, but who can ever know?"

A recent independent report sharply criticised the three synthetic trachea operations that took place at the Karolinska University Hospital and a separate investigation at the Karolinska Institute identified mistakes made when Macchiarini was recruited and when allegations of misconduct were made against him two years ago.