The misconduct case of Paolo Macchiarini, a surgeon and researcher who fooled the biomedical community about the failure of his pioneering work on trachea implants, had a bizarre and tragic side story. The discredited surgeon, formerly of the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm, also spun an elaborate web of lies for Benita Alexander, a former NBC investigative producer who fell in love with him while on an assignment to cover his work. In an ironic take on Valentine’s Day, a new documentary on their doomed whirlwind romance is airing tonight in the United States.
Among the falsehoods Macchiarini told Alexander, who at the time worked for NBC in New York City, are claims that he belonged to a secret cadre of doctors who treat heads of state and other VIPs, and that he and Alexander would marry at a Rome ceremony in July 2015 officiated by Pope Francis and with the Obamas, the Clintons, the Putins, and Elton John in attendance.
None of it was true, as Alexander found out 2 months before the supposed wedding, a revelation documented 2 years ago in a riveting Vanity Fair article by another journalist. Now, Alexander retells the story herself in an 85-minute documentary, He Lied About Everything, that will premiere at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the Investigation Discovery television channel.
The film doesn’t shed much new light on Macchiarini’s scientific misconduct—which one whistleblower in the case now qualifies as “murder,” because almost all of his trachea recipients have died—but it provides a fascinating glimpse into his private world at a time when his research was coming under fire. Making the film was “extraordinarily difficult and painful,” says Alexander, an Emmy Award winner who gave up her job and took her daughter out of a private school thinking she was going to live with Macchiarini in Barcelona. “I was utterly devastated. He blew up my whole life,” she says. “But my thoughts turned very quickly to the fact that this was a man who had people’s lives in his hands. I had to force myself to pick myself up off the floor and tell my story.”
It’s a twist of irony that the media helped build Macchiarini’s reputation, and then helped destroy it. He became famous by creating replacement tracheas, or windpipes, in the lab, initially from donor tracheas and later from plastic versions. They were “seeded” with stem cells that supposedly turned them into a living, functional organ. Glowing accounts in the press hailed Macchiarini—who speaks six languages, worked all over the world, and has what Alexander calls “this sexy George Clooney thing going on”—as a “supersurgeon” and a pioneer of regenerative medicine. (NBC got interested in him after a front page 2012 story in The New York Times, Alexander says.)
At first, misconduct allegations against Macchiarini didn’t stick. In August 2015, KI dismissed a report by an independent investigator, Bengt Gerdin of Uppsala University in Sweden, who had concluded that Macchiarini had committed scientific misconduct. “He was back in business,” says KI’s Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, one of four scientists who had blown the whistle on Macchiarini. “He had the full support of the Karolinska Institute, and we were basically looking for other jobs.” But when the Vanity Fair story was published on 6 January 2016, says Grinnemo, “everybody realized, ‘Oh my God, his entire life is fake.’”
Another bombshell came a week later: The first episode of Experimenten, a three-part documentary by Swedish television producer Bosse Lindquist on Macchiarini’s work that included searing footage of a young Russian woman who died after having received one of his artificial windpipes. “The two stories complemented each other,” Grinnemo says. But Gerdin says that Experimenten, which aired on primetime TV in Sweden, had a “vastly higher impact.” It triggered a media storm and led to KI firing Macchiarini in March 2016, as well as the resignation of a slew of KI officials. (He Lied About Everything will air in Sweden on 25 February.)
Lindquist, who’s writing a book about the case, says that Macchiarini liked to be filmed but loved filming as well. Alexander’s documentary makes lavish use of intimate footage, much of it shot by Macchiarini, that shows the couple traveling to romantic locations around the world and him showering her with gifts. (“It’s amazing that he left all that footage with her, knowing that she might become very angry and that she was an NBC producer,” Lindquist says.) The film also shows how Macchiarini formed a close bond with Alexander’s daughter, who was 9 when the couple met in February 2013, and whose father died from brain cancer in June of that year.
The house of cards collapsed after a friend emailed Alexander a news story showing that Pope Francis would be in South America during the week he was supposed to marry the couple at his summer residence, the Gandolfo Castle. In the documentary, Alexander says Macchiarini tried to explain the discrepancy with even more absurd lies—including the claim that he was a sniper and worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, and that former Pope Benedict had tried to stop the wedding—while she grew ever more suspicious. Once the truth had sunk in, she started traveling all around Europe in a futile attempt to get answers, discovering in the process that Macchiarini was still married and appeared to have relationships with at least three other women. She also documents how he misled his colleagues, KI, and his patients, almost all of whom have died.
Alexander says she’s unclear about Macchiarini’s current whereabouts. As Science has reported, Macchiarini lost his research funding and his job at Kazan Federal University in Russia earlier this year. Prosecutors in Stockholm announced in October 2017 that they would not pursue manslaughter charges against Macchiarini, but a new, separate inquiry by prosecutors in Gothenburg, Sweden, is pending.
As to what motivated Macchiarini, Alexander says she still doesn’t know. “What’s going on in that mind? I have no idea,” she says. But her own experience has helped her understand why the allegations of his scientific misconduct were so unwelcome, she says. “Whether you are an institution that financed him, wrote a paper with him, or were in the operating room with him, it’s very difficult to admit you were fooled,” she says. “It’s humiliating. … It’s much easier to want to shove it under the rug and move away from it.”