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Nobel Prize for Medicine rocked by scandal over surgeon accused of misconduct

by Gail Kalinoski, Contributing Reporter | September 07, 2016
Business Affairs
Nearly a month before the prestigious Nobel Prize for Medicine is due to be announced, a scandal involving a surgeon and stem cell researcher accused of falsifying his work on windpipe transplants has lead to the dismissal of two judges from the Nobel panel and calls for the prize to be postponed this year.

Dr. Paolo Macchiarini has been accused of performing experimental surgeries on several people that have resulted in two deaths while a third patient remains hospitalized. Macchiarini denies any wrongdoing but he faces accusations of scientific fraud and misconduct and possible criminal charges of gross criminal negligence, according to the Guardian.

Macchiarini, considered a specialist in his field, was employed by the Karolinska Institute and as a consultant at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm where the surgeries were performed. The Guardian report stated that a recent investigation determined that three operations in which he “transplanted synthetic tracheas coated with stem cells were performed before sufficient study had been done on the procedure.”

Karolinska Institute’s Nobel assembly decides who gets the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. The assembly has 50 voting members who are professors at the Stockholm-based Karolinska Institute.

Nobel judges Anders Hamsten and Harriet Wallberg, who have both been heads of the Karolinska Institute, were asked to step down from the panel. They will not be allowed to participate in the Nobel process ever again.

“Confidence in the two principals is so seriously damaged that it has been exhausted. The damage is so great, and of such a character, that we will ask them to resign from the Nobel Assembly,” assembly secretary Thomas Perlmann stated in a BBC report.

The Swedish government had already dismissed the entire board of the institute because of the controversy over Macchiarini.

“Scandal is the right word. People have been harmed because of the actions of the Karolinska Institute and also the Karolinska University Hospital,” said Sweden’s Minister for Higher Education and Research, Helene Hellmark Knutsson, in the BBC report.

Hamsten, who was president of the Karolinska Institute when Macchiarini was hired, has already resigned from the institute. Wallberg, was president of the institute in 2014 when allegations about the doctor began surfacing. The Guardian reported Wallberg, currently chancellor of the Sweden Higher Education Authority, was fired Monday from that position.

The controversy casts doubt on whether the Nobel prize for medicine will even be awarded this fall with at least one person calling for it to be put on hold. Bo Risberg, former head of the Karolinska Institute ethics committee, has suggested the prize money be given to relatives of the former patients of Macchiarini, according to a Reuters report.

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