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Urban Lendahl announced the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on 5 October 2015.

Erik Cronberg, KI

Top Nobel Prize administrator resigns in wake of Macchiarini scandal

The widening scandal surrounding surgeon Paolo Macchiarini and his employment at the Karolinska Insitute (KI) in Stockholm has prompted Urban Lendahl, secretary general of the Nobel Assembly, to resign. Lendahl, a developmental geneticist at KI, was involved in hiring Macchiarini in 2010, according to Swedish media reports. A statement from the Nobel Committee today said that Lendahl expected to be involved in the investigation and was giving up his work on the committee “out of respect for the integrity of the Nobel Prize work.”

KI announced last week that it had “lost confidence” in Macchiarini  and would cut ties with him when his current contract as a senior researcher ends in November. It also said it would launch an external investigation into the university’s interactions with Maccharini since his hiring as a guest professor in 2010.

Lendahl has been a member of the Nobel Assembly at KI since 2000. Made up of 50 professors from KI, the assembly chooses the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine every year. Lendahl was elected as secretary general in late 2014 and assumed office in early 2015. The secretary general directs the Nobel office at KI, is the assembly’s spokesperson, and usually announces the winner of the prize—as Lendahl did last October, when the Nobel went to three pioneers in antiparasitic drug development. The job “clearly involves a fair share of administrative work,” Lendahl said in an interview last year, “but the most exciting part is to be constantly engaged in thinking about and discussing the best science that is conducted on the planet.”

Lendahl’s resignation is an indirect result of The Experiments, a documentary that aired in January on Swedish public television station SVT and that led to KI’s decision to cut ties with Macchiarini. The film detailed the troubling questions about Macchiarini’s pioneering trachea implants—six of eight patients who received his polymer windpipes have died—and the way he described his operations as a success in scientific papers. 

The documentary also cast doubt on KI’s investigation into Macchiarini’s work. It suggested that four KI doctors who acted as whistleblowers in Macchiarini’s case in 2014 had trouble getting the university to take their concerns seriously and questioned why KI Vice-Chancellor Anders Hamsten cleared Macchiarini of misconduct charges even though an external investigator commissioned by the university found him guilty.

In a letter the four doctors wrote to Hamsten and other KI administrators on 1 February, they provided more details about their past difficulties. They also sought to dispel the notion that, until The Experiments was released, KI leaders were not aware of the extent of the problems with Macchiarini’s work. The four say that KI has embarked on a “diversion tactic” whose purpose is “to provide KI, under the leadership of Prof Hamsten, with an air of plausible deniability to the images revealed in the documentary.”

“[Vice-Chancellor] Prof Hamsten was informed personally in detail on Feb 21, 2014 by Dr. Grinnemo of the state of the patients operated on at Karolinska and the gross and serial misrepresentation of their clinical outcome in the articles published by Prof Macchiarini,” the letter states. “At this time KI should have immediately initiated an investigation but instead did nothing. After this first meeting at least 9 attempts on our part were initiated to bring attention to these circumstances and implement a moratorium and an investigation to prevent further patients from being put in what seemed to be life-threatening danger.”

KI did not launch an investigation until November 2014, after The New York Times reported on the complaints. Another patient received an artificial trachea in the summer of 2014. According to The Experiments, he was able to have it removed after it failed, and he is still alive.