scientists behaving badly

Outside whistleblower Elisabeth Bik scrutinizes newly published scientific papers for misleading images and data.

(© freshidea/Adobe)

Introduction by Mary Inman, Whistleblower Attorney

For most people, when they see the word "whistleblower," the image that leaps to mind is a lone individual bravely stepping forward to shine a light on misconduct she has witnessed first-hand. Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood exposing safety violations observed while working the line at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant. Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre in The Informant!, capturing on his pocket recorder clandestine meetings between his employer and its competitors to fix the price of lysine. However, a new breed of whistleblower is emerging who isn't at the scene of the crime but instead figures it out after the fact through laborious review of publicly available information and expert analysis. Elisabeth Bik belongs to this new class of whistleblower.

"There's this delicate balance where on one hand we want to spread results really fast as scientists, but on the other hand, we know it's incomplete, it's rushed and it's not great."

Using her expertise as a microbiologist and her trained eye, Bik studies publicly available scientific papers to sniff out potential irregularities in the images that suggest research fraud, later seeking retraction of the offending paper from the journal's publisher. There's no smoking gun, no first-hand account of any kind. Just countless hours spent reviewing scores of scientific papers and Bik's skills and dedication as a science fraud sleuth.

While Bik's story may not as readily lend itself to the big screen, her work is nonetheless equally heroic. By tirelessly combing scientific papers to expose research fraud, Bik is playing a vital role in holding the scientific publishing process accountable and ensuring that misleading information does not spread unchecked. This is important work in any age, but particularly so in the time of COVID, where we can ill afford the setbacks and delays of scientists building on false science. In the present climate, where science is politicized and scientific principles are under attack, strong voices like Bik's must rise above the din to ensure the scientific information we receive, and our governments act upon, is accurate. Our health and wellbeing depend on it.

Whistleblower outsiders like Bik are challenging the traditional concept of what it means to be a whistleblower. Fortunately for us, the whistleblower community is a broad church. As with most ecosystems, we all benefit from a diversity of voices —whistleblower insiders and outsiders alike. What follows is an illuminating conversation between Bik, and Ivan Oransky, the co-founder of Retraction Watch, an influential blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers and related topics. (Conversation facilitated by LeapsMag Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff)

Elisabeth Bik and Ivan Oransky.

(Photo credits Michel & Co Photography, San Jose, CA and Elizabeth Solaka)

Ivan

I'd like to hear your thoughts, Elisabeth, on an L.A. Times story, which was picking up a preprint about mutations and the novel coronavirus, alleging that the virus is mutating to become more infectious – even though this conclusion wasn't actually warranted.

Elisabeth

A lot of the news around it is picking up on one particular side of the story that is maybe not that much exaggerated by the scientists. I don't think this paper really showed that the mutations were causing the virus to be more virulent. Some of these viruses continuously mutate and mutate and mutate, and that doesn't necessarily make a strain more virulent. I think in many cases, a lot of people want to read something in a paper that is not actually there.

Ivan

The tone level, everything that's being published now, it's problematic. It's being rushed, here it wasn't even peer-reviewed. But even when they are peer-reviewed, they're being peer-reviewed by people who often aren't really an expert in that particular area.

Elisabeth

That's right.

Ivan

To me, it's all problematic. At the same time, it's all really good that it's all getting out there. I think that five or 10 years ago, or if we weren't in a pandemic, maybe that paper wouldn't have appeared at all. It would have maybe been submitted to a top-ranked journal and not have been accepted, or maybe it would have been improved during peer review and bounced down the ladder a bit to a lower-level journal.

Yet, now, because it's about coronavirus, it's in a major newspaper and, in fact, it's getting critiqued immediately.

Maybe it's too Pollyanna-ish, but I actually think that quick uploading is a good thing. The fear people have about preprint servers is based on this idea that the peer-reviewed literature is perfect. Once it is in a peer-reviewed journal, they think it must have gone through this incredible process. You're laughing because-

Elisabeth

I am laughing.

Ivan

You know it's not true.

Elisabeth

Yes, we both know that. I agree and I think in this particular situation, a pandemic that is unlike something our generation has seen before, there is a great, great need for fast dissemination of science.

If you have new findings, it is great that there is a thing called a preprint server where scientists can quickly share their results, with, of course, the caveat that it's not peer-reviewed yet.

It's unlike the traditional way of publishing papers, which can take months or years. Preprint publishing is a very fast way of spreading your results in a good way so that is what the world needs right now.

On the other hand, of course, there's the caveat that these are brand new results and a good scientist usually thinks about their results to really interpret it well. You have to look at it from all sides and I think with the rushed publication of preprint papers, there is no such thing as carefully thinking about what results might mean.

So there's this delicate balance where on one hand we want to spread results really fast as scientists, but on the other hand, we know it's incomplete, it's rushed and it's not great. This might be hard for the general audience to understand.

Ivan

I still think the benefits of that dissemination are more positive than negative.

Elisabeth

Right. But there's also so many papers that come out now on preprint servers and most of them are not that great, but there are some really good studies in there. It's hard to find those nuggets of really great papers. There's just a lot of papers that come out now.

Ivan

Well, you've made more than a habit of finding problems in papers. These are mostly, of course, until now published papers that you examined, but what is this time like for you? How is it different?

Elisabeth

It's different because in the beginning I looked at several COVID-19-related papers that came out and wrote some critiques about it. I did experience a lot of backlash because of that. So I felt I had to take a break from social media and from writing about COVID-19.

I focused a little bit more on other work because I just felt that a lot of these papers on COVID-19 became so politically divisive that if you tried to be a scientist and think critically about a paper, you were actually assigned to a particular political party or to be against other political parties. It's hard for me to be sucked into the political discussion and to the way that our society now is so completely divided into two camps that seem to be not listening to each other.

Ivan

I was curious about that because I've followed your work for a number of years, as you know, and certainly you have had critics before. I'm thinking of the case in China that you uncovered, the leading figure in the Chinese Academy who was really a powerful political figure in addition to being a scientist.

Elisabeth

So that was a case in which I found a couple of papers at first from a particular group in China, and I was just posting on a website called PubPeer, where you can post comments, concerns about papers. And in this case, these were image duplication issues, which is my specialty.

I did not realize that the group I was looking at at that moment was led by one of the highest ranked scientists in China. If I had known that, I would probably not have posted that under my full name, but under a pseudonym. Since I had already posted, some people were starting to send me direct messages on Twitter like, "OMG, the guy you're posting about now is the top scientist in China so you're going to have a lot of backlash."

Then I decided I'll just continue doing this. I found a total of around 50 papers from this group and posted all of them on PubPeer. That story quickly became a very popular story in China: number two on Sina Weibo, a social media site in China.

I was surprised it wasn't suppressed by the Chinese government, it was actually allowed by journalists that were writing about it, and I didn't experience a lot of backlash because of that.

Actually the Chinese doctor wrote me an email saying that he appreciated my feedback and that he would look into these cases. He sent a very polite email so I sent him back that I appreciated that he would look into these cases and left it there.

Ivan

There are certain subjects that I know when we write about them in Retraction Watch, they have tended in the past to really draw a lot of ire. I'm thinking anything about vaccines and autism, anything about climate change, stem cell research.

For a while that last subject has sort of died down. But now it's become a highly politically charged atmosphere. Do you feel that this pandemic has raised the profile of people such as yourself who we refer to as scientific sleuths, people who look critically and analytically at new research?

Elisabeth

Yeah, some people. But I'm also worried that some people who are great scientists and have shown a lot of critical thinking are being attacked because of that. If you just look at what happened to Dr. Fauci, I think that's a prime example. Where somebody who actually is very knowledgeable and very cautious of new science has not been widely accepted as a great leader, in our country at least. It's sad to see that. I'm just worried how long he will be at his position, to be honest.

Ivan

We noticed a big uptick in our traffic in the last few days to Retraction Watch and it turns out it was because someone we wrote about a number of years ago has really hopped on the bandwagon to try and discredit and even try to have Dr. Fauci fired.

It's one of these reminders that the way people think about scientists has, in many cases, far more to do with their own history or their own perspective going in than with any reality or anything about the science. It's pretty disturbing, but it's not a new thing. This has been happening for a while.

You can go back and read sociologists of science from 50-60 years ago and see the same thing, but I just don't think that it's in the same way that it is now, maybe in part because of social media.

Elisabeth

I've been personally very critical about several studies, but this is the first time I've experienced being attacked by trolls and having some nasty websites written about me. It is very disturbing to read.

"I don't think that something that's been peer-reviewed is perfect and something that hasn't been peer reviewed, you should never bother reading it."

Ivan

It is. Yet you have been a fearless and vocal critic of some very high-profile papers, like the infamous French study about hydroxychloroquine.

Elisabeth

Right, the paper that came out was immediately tweeted by the President of the United States. At first I thought it was great that our President tweeted about science! I thought that was a major breakthrough. I took a look at this paper.

It had just come out that day, I believe. The first thing I noticed is that it was accepted within 24 hours of being submitted to the journal. It was actually published in a journal where one of the authors is the editor-in-chief, which is a huge conflict of interest, but it happens.

But in this particular case, there were also a lot of flaws with the study and that, I think, should have been caught during peer review. The paper was first published on a preprint server and then within 24 hours or so it was published in that paper, supposedly after peer review.

There were very few changes between the preprint version and the peer review paper. There were just a couple of extra lines, extra sentences added here and there, but it wasn't really, I think, critically looked at. Because there were a lot of things that I thought were flaws.

Just to go over a couple of them. This paper showed supposedly that people who were treated with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were doing much better by clearing their virus much faster than people who were not treated with these drugs.

But if you look carefully at the paper there were a couple of people who were left out of the study. So they were treated with hydroxychloroquine, but they were not shown in the end results of the paper. All six people who were treated with the drug combination were clearing the virus within six days, but there were a couple of others who were left out of the study. They also started the drug combination, but they stopped taking the drugs for several reasons and three of them were admitted to the intensive care, one died, one had some side effects and one apparently walked out of the hospital.

They were left out of the study but they were actually not doing very well with the drug combination. It's not very good science if you leave out people who don't do very well with your drug combination in your study. That was one of my biggest critiques of the paper.

Ivan

What struck us about that case was, in addition to what you, of course, mentioned, the fact that Trump tweeted it and was talking about hydroxychloroquine, was that it seemed to be a perfect example of, "well, it was in a peer review journal." Yeah, it was a preprint first, but, well, it's a peer review journal. And yet, as you point out, when you look at the history of the paper, it was accepted in 24 hours.

If you talk to most scientists, the actual act of a peer review, once you sit down to do it and can concentrate, a good one takes, again, these are averages, but four hours, a half a day is not unreasonable. So you had to find three people who could suddenly review this paper. As you pointed out, it was in a journal where one of the authors was editor.

Then some strange things also happened, right? The society that actually publishes the journal, they came out with a statement saying this wasn't up to our standards, which is odd. Then Elsevier came in, they're the ones who are actually contracted to publish the journal for the society. They said, basically, "Oh, we're going to look into this now too."

It just makes you wonder what happened before the paper was actually published. All the people who were supposed to have been involved in doing the peer review or checking on it are clearly very distraught about what actually happened. It's that scene from Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked there's gambling going on here." And then, "Your winnings, sir."

Elisabeth

Yes.

Ivan

And I don't actually blame the public, I don't blame reporters for getting a bit confused about what it all means and what they should trust. I don't think trust is a binary any more than anything else is a binary. I don't think that something that's been peer-reviewed is perfect and something that hasn't been peer reviewed, you should never bother reading it. I think everything is much more gray.

Yet we've turned things into a binary. Even if you go back before coronavirus, coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you, red wine, chocolate, all the rest of it. A lot of that is because of this sort of binary construct of the world for journalists, frankly, for scientists that need to get their next grants. And certainly for the general public, they want answers.

On the one hand, if I had to choose what group of experts, or what field of human endeavor would I trust with finding the answer to a pandemic like this, or to any crisis, it would absolutely be scientists. Hands down. This is coming from someone who writes about scientific fraud.

But on the other hand, that means that if scientists aren't clear about what they don't know and about the nuances and about what the scientific method actually allows us to do and learn, that just sets them up for failure. It sets people like Dr. Fauci up for failure.

Elisabeth

Right.

Ivan

It sets up any public health official who has a discussion about models. There's a famous saying: "All models are wrong, but some are useful."

Just because the projections change, it's not proof of wrongness, it's not proof that the model is fatally flawed. In fact, I'd be really concerned if the projections didn't change based on new information. I would love it if this whole episode did lead to a better understanding of the scientific process and how scientific publishing fits into that — and doesn't fit into it.

Elisabeth

Yes, I'm with you. I'm very worried that the general audience's perspective is based on maybe watching too many movies where the scientist comes up with a conclusion one hour into the movie when everything is about to fail. Like that scene in Contagion where somebody injects, I think, eight monkeys, and one of the monkeys survives and boom we have the vaccine. That's not really how science works. Everything takes many, many years and many, many applications where usually your first ideas and your first hypothesis turn out to be completely wrong.

Then you go back to the drawing board, you develop another hypothesis and this is a very reiterative process that usually takes years. Most of the people who watch the movie might have a very wrong idea and wrong expectations about how science works. We're living in the movie Contagion and by September, we'll all be vaccinated and we can go on and live our lives. But that's not what is going to happen. It's going to take much, much longer and we're going to have to change the models every time and change our expectations. Just because we don't know all the numbers and all the facts yet.

Ivan

Generally it takes a fairly long time to change medical practice. A lot of times people see that as a bad thing. What I think that ignores, or at least doesn't take into as much account as I would, is that you don't want doctors and other health care professionals to turn on a dime and suddenly switch. Unless, of course, it turns out there was no evidence for what you were looking at.

It's a complicated situation.

Everybody wants scientists to be engineers, right?

Elisabeth

Right.

Ivan

I'm not saying engineering isn't scientific, nor am I saying that science is just completely whimsical, but there's a different process. It's a different way of looking at things and you can't just throw all the data into a big supercomputer, which is what I think a lot of people seem to want us to do, and then the obvious answer will come out on the other side.

Elisabeth

No. It's true and a lot of engineers suddenly feel their inherent need to solve this as a problem. They're not scientists and it's not building a bridge over a big river. But we're dealing with something that is very hard to solve because we don't understand the problem yet. I think scientists are usually first analyzing the problem and trying to understand what the problem actually is before you can even think about a solution.

Ivan

I think we're still at the understanding the problem phase.

Elisabeth

Exactly. And going back to the French group paper, that promised such a result and that was interpreted as such by a lot of people including presidents, but it's a very rare thing to find a medication that will have a 100% curation rate. That's something that I wish the people would understand better. We all want that to happen, but it's very unlikely and very unprecedented in the best of times.

Ivan

I would second that and also say that the world needs to better value the work that people like Elisabeth and others are doing. Because we're not going to get to a better answer if we're not rigorous about scrutinizing the literature and scrutinizing the methodology and scrutinizing the results.

"I quit my job to be able to do this work."

It's a relatively new phenomenon that you're able to do this at any scale at all, and even now it's at a very small scale. Elisabeth mentioned PubPeer and I'm a big fan — also full disclosure, I'm on their board of directors as a volunteer — it's a very powerful engine for readers and journal editors and other scientists to discuss issues.

And Elisabeth has used it really, really well. I think we need to start giving credit to people like that. And, also creating incentives for that kind of work in a way that science hasn't yet.

Elisabeth

Yeah. I quit my job to be able to do this work. It's really hard to combine it with a job either in academia or industry because we're looking for or criticizing papers and it's hard when you are still employed to do that.

I try to make it about the papers and do it in a polite way, but still it's a very hard job to do if you have a daytime job and a position and a career to worry about. Because if you're critical of other academics, that could actually mean the end of your career and that's sad. They should be more open to polite criticism.

Ivan

And for the general public, if you're reading a newspaper story or something online about a single study and it doesn't mention any other studies that have said the same thing or similar, or frankly, if it doesn't say anything about any studies that contradicted it, that's probably also telling you something.

Say you're looking at a huge painting of a shoreline, a beach, and a forest. Any single study is just a one-centimeter-by-one-centimeter square of any part of that canvas. If you just look at that, you would either think it was a painting of the sea, of a beach, or of the forest. It's actually all three of those things.

We just need to be patient, and that's very challenging to us as human beings, but we need to take the time to look at the whole picture.

DISCLAIMER: Neither Elisabeth Bik nor Ivan Oransky was compensated for participation in The Pandemic Issue. While the magazine's editors suggested broad topics for discussion, consistent with Bik's and Oransky's work, neither they nor the magazine's underwriters had any influence on their conversation.

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

Medical scams like Theranos are as American as America itself.

(© Syda Productions/Adobe, left, and on right, photo credit: Drew Kelly, Courtesy of HBO)


The huckster understands what people want – an easy route to good health -- and figures out just how to provide it as long as no one asks too many questions.

"Americans are very much prone to this sort of thinking: Give me a pill or give me a magical bean that can make me lose weight!"

The keys to success: Hoopla, fancy technology, and gullibility. And oh yes, one more thing: a blood sample. Well, lots and lots of blood samples. Every testing fee counts.

Sound familiar? It could be the story of the preternaturally persuasive Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of Theranos who stands accused of perpetrating a massive blood-testing fraud. But this is a different story from a different time, one that dates back 100 years but sounds almost like it could unfold on the front page of The Wall Street Journal today.

The main difference: Back then, watchdogs thought they'd be able to vanquish fake medicine and scam science. Fat chance, it turned out. It seems like we're more likely to lose-weight-quick than make much of a dent into quackery and health fraud.

Why? Have we learned anything at all over the past century? As we sweep into a new decade, experts says we're not as advanced as we'd like to think. But the fight against fraud and fakery continues.

Quackery: As American As America Itself

In the 17th century, British healers of questionable reputation got a new name -- "quack," from the Dutch word "quacksalver," which originally referred to someone who treats others with home remedies but developed a new meaning along the lines of "charlatan." And these quacks got a new place to sell their wares: the American colonies.

By 1692, a Boston newspaper advertised a patent medicine that promised to cure "the Griping of the Guts, and the Wind Cholick" and – for good measure – "preventeth that woeful Distemper of the Dry Belly Ach." A couple centuries later, the most famous woman in the United States wasn't a first lady or feminist but a hawker of nostrums named Lydia Estes Pinkham whose "vegetable compound" promised to banish "female complaints." One advertisement suggested that the "sure cure" would have saved the life of a Connecticut clergyman whose wife killed him after suffering from feminine maladies for 16 years.

By the early 20th century, Americans were fascinated by electricity and radiation, and both healers and hucksters embraced the new high-tech era. Men with flagging libidos, for example, could irradiate their private parts with the radioactive Radiendocrinator or buy battery-powered electric belts equipped with dangling bits to supercharge their, um, dangling bits.

The Rise of the Radio Wave 'Cure'

Enter radionics, the (supposed) science of better health via radio waves. The idea was that "healthy people radiate healthy energy," and sickness could be reversed through diagnosis and re-tuning, write Dr. Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen in their 2017 book "Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything."

Detecting illness and fixing it required machinery -- Dynamizers, Radioclasts and Oscillocasts – that could cost hundreds of dollars each. Thousands of physicians bought them. Fortunately, they could work remotely, for a fee. The worried-and-potentially-unwell just needed to send a blood sample and, of course, a personal check.

Sting operations revealed radionics to be bogus. A skeptic sent a blood sample to one radionics practitioner in Albuquerque who reported back with news of an infected fallopian tube. In fact, the blood sample came from a male guinea pig. As an American Medical Association leader reported, the guinea pig "had shown no female characteristics up to that time, and a postmortem examination yielded no evidence of ladylike attributes."

When Quackery Refused to Yield

The rise of bogus medical technology in the early 20th century spawned a watchdog industry as organizations like the American Medical Association swept into action, said medical historian Eric Boyle, author of 2012's "Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth-Century America."

"When quackery was recognized as a major problem, the people who campaigned for its demise were confident that they could get rid of it," he said. "A lot of people believed that increased education, the truths of science, and laws designed to protect consumers would ultimately drive quackery from the marketplace. And then throughout the century, as modern medicine developed, and more effectively treated one disease after another, many observers remained confident in that prediction."

There's a bid to "flood the information highway with truth to turn the storm of fake promotional stuff into a trickle."

But fake medicine persisted as Americans continued their quest to get- healthy-quick… or get-rich-quick by promising to help others to get- healthy-quick. Even radionics refused to die. It's still around in various forms. And, as the Theranos scandal reveals, we're still hoping our blood can offer the keys to longevity and good health.

Why Do We Still Fall for Scams?

In our own era, the Theranos company rose to prominence when founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes convinced journalists and investors that she'd found a way to cheaply test drops of blood for hundreds of conditions. Then it all fell apart, famously, when the world learned that the technology didn't work. The company has folded, and Holmes faces a federal trial on fraud charges this year.

"There were a lot of prominent, very smart people who bought into the myth of Elizabeth Holmes," a former employee told "60 Minutes," even though the blood tests never actually worked as advertised.

Shouldn't "prominent, very smart people" know better? "People are gullible," said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist and leading quack-buster who runs the QuackWatch website. But there's more to the story. According to him, we're uniquely vulnerable as individuals to bogus medicine.

Scam artists specifically pinpoint their target audiences, such as "smart people," desperate people and alienated people, he said.

Smart people, for example, might be overconfident about their ability to detect fraud and fall for bogus medicine. Alienated people may distrust the establishment, whether it's the medical field or government watchdogs, and be more receptive to alternative sources of information.

Dr. Barrett also points a finger at magical thinking, which comes in different forms. It could mean a New Age-style belief that our minds can control the world around us. Or, as professional quack-buster Alex Berezow said, it could refer to "our cultural obsession with quick fixes."

"Americans are very much prone to this sort of thinking: Give me a pill or give me a magical bean that can make me lose weight! But complex problems need complex solutions," said Berezow, a microbiologist who debunks junk science in his job as a spokesman for the American Council on Science & Health.

American mistrust of expertise makes matters worse, he said. "When I tell people they need to get vaccinated, I'm called a shill for the pharmaceutical industry," he said. "If I say dietary supplements generally don't work, I'm a shill for doctors who want to keep people sick."

What can ordinary citizens do to protect themselves from fake medicine? "You have to have a healthy skepticism of everything," Berezow said. "When you come across something new, is someone trying to take advantage of you? It's a horrible way to think about the world, but there's some truth to it."

"Like any chronic disease, we will have to live with it while we do our best to fight it."

The government and experts have their own roles to play via regulation and education, respectively. For all the criticism it gets, the Food & Drug Administration does serve as a bulwark against fakery in prescription medicine. And while celebrities like Gwyneth "Goop" Paltrow hawk countless questionable medical products on the Internet, scientists and physicians are fighting back by using social media as a tool to promote the truth. There's a bid to "flood the information highway with truth to turn the storm of fake promotional stuff into a trickle," said Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein, a writer in residence at Yale School of Medicine and author of 2018's "Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything."

What's next? Like death, taxes and Cher, charlatans are likely to always be with us. Boyle quoted the late William Jarvis, a pioneering quack-buster in the late 20th century who believed health fraud would never be eradicated: "Like any chronic disease, we will have to live with it while we do our best to fight it."

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga is former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a non-profit association of freelance writers and non-fiction authors. He has been a freelance writer since 1999 and specializes in health/medicine, politics, books, and the odd and unusual. You can follow him at @rdotinga.
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Elizabeth Holmes.

(Photo Credit: Drew Kelly, Courtesy of HBO)


"The Inventor," a chronicle of Theranos's storied downfall, premiered recently on HBO. Leapsmag reached out to director Alex Gibney, whom The New York Times has called "one of America's most successful and prolific documentary filmmakers," for his perspective on Elizabeth Holmes and the world she inhabited.

Do you think Elizabeth Holmes was a charismatic sociopath from the start — or is she someone who had good intentions, over-promised, and began the lies to keep her business afloat, a "fake it till you make it" entrepreneur like Thomas Edison?

I'm not qualified to say if EH was or is a sociopath. I don't think she started Theranos as a scam whose only purpose was to make money. If she had done so, she surely would have taken more money for herself along the way. I do think that she had good intentions and that she, as you say, "began the lies to keep her business afloat." ([Reporter John] Carreyrou's book points out that those lies began early.) I think that the Edison comparison is instructive for a lot of reasons.

First, Edison was the original "fake-it-till-you-make-it" entrepreneur. That puts this kind of behavior in the mainstream of American business. By saying that, I am NOT endorsing the ethic, just the opposite. As one Enron executive mused about the mendacity there, "Was it fraud or was it bad marketing?" That gives you a sense of how baked-in the "fake it" sensibility is.

"Having a thirst for fame and a noble cause enabled her to think it was OK to lie in service of those goals."

I think EH shares one other thing with Edison, which is a huge ego coupled with a talent for storytelling as long as she is the heroic, larger-than-life main character. It's interesting that EH calls her initial device "Edison." Edison was the world's most famous "inventor," both because of the devices that came out of his shop and and for his ability for "self-invention." As Randall Stross notes in "The Wizard of Menlo Park," he was the first celebrity businessman. In addition to her "good intentions," EH was certainly motivated by fame and glory and many of her lies were in service to those goals.

Having a thirst for fame and a noble cause enabled her to think it was OK to lie in service of those goals. That doesn't excuse the lies. But those noble goals may have allowed EH to excuse them for herself or, more perniciously, to make believe that they weren't lies at all. This is where we get into scary psychological territory.

But rather than thinking of it as freakish, I think it's more productive to think of it as an exaggeration of the way we all lie to others and to ourselves. That's the point of including the Dan Ariely experiment with the dice. In that experiment, most of the subjects cheated more when they thought they were doing it for a good cause. Even more disturbing, that "good cause" allowed them to lie much more effectively because they had come to believe they weren't doing anything wrong. As it turns out, economics isn't a rational practice; it's the practice of rationalizing.

Where EH and Edison differ is that Edison had a firm grip on reality. He knew he could find a way to make the incandescent lightbulb work. There is no evidence that EH was close to making her "Edison" work. But rather than face reality (and possibly adjust her goals) she pretended that her dream was real. That kind of "over-promising" or "bold vision" is one thing when you are making a prototype in the lab. It's a far more serious matter when you are using a deeply flawed system on real patients. EH can tell herself that she had to do that (Walgreens was ready to walk away if she hadn't "gone live") or else Theranos would have run out of money.

But look at the calculation she made: she thought it was worth putting lives at risk in order to make her dream come true. Now we're getting into the realm of the sociopath. But my experience leads me to believe that -- as in the case of the Milgram experiment -- most people don't do terrible things right away, they come to crimes gradually as they become more comfortable with bigger and bigger rationalizations. At Theranos, the more valuable the company became, the bigger grew the lies.

The two whistleblowers come across as courageous heroes, going up against the powerful and intimidating company. The contrast between their youth and lack of power and the old elite backers of Theronos is staggering, and yet justice triumphed. Were the whistleblowers hesitant or afraid to appear in the film, or were they eager to share their stories?

By the time I got to them, they were willing and eager to tell their stories, once I convinced them that I would honor their testimony. In the case of Erika and Tyler, they were nudged to participate by John Carreyrou, in whom they had enormous trust.

"It's simply crazy that no one demanded to see an objective demonstration of the magic box."

Why do you think so many elite veterans of politics and venture capitalism succumbed to Holmes' narrative in the first place, without checking into the details of its technology or financials?

The reasons are all in the film. First, Channing Robertson and many of the old men on her board were clearly charmed by her and maybe attracted to her. They may have rationalized their attraction by convincing themselves it was for a good cause! Second, as Dan Ariely tells us, we all respond to stories -- more than graphs and data -- because they stir us emotionally. EH was a great storyteller. Third, the story of her as a female inventor and entrepreneur in male-dominated Silicon Valley is a tale that they wanted to invest in.

There may have been other factors. EH was very clever about the way she put together an ensemble of credibility. How could Channing Robertson, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and Jim Mattis all be wrong? And when Walgreens put the Wellness Centers in stores, investors like Rupert Murdoch assumed that Walgreens must have done its due diligence. But they hadn't!

It's simply crazy that no one demanded to see an objective demonstration of the magic box. But that blind faith, as it turns out, is more a part of capitalism than we have been taught.

Do you think that Roger Parloff deserves any blame for the glowing Fortune story on Theranos, since he appears in the film to blame himself? Or was he just one more victim of Theranos's fraud?

He put her on the cover of Fortune so he deserves some blame for the fraud. He still blames himself. That willingness to hold himself to account shows how seriously he takes the job of a journalist. Unlike Elizabeth, Roger has the honesty and moral integrity to admit that he made a mistake. He owned up to it and published a mea culpa. That said, Roger was also a victim because Elizabeth lied to him.

Do you think investors in Silicon Valley, with their FOMO attitudes and deep pockets, are vulnerable to making the same mistake again with a shiny new startup, or has this saga been a sober reminder to do their due diligence first?

Many of the mistakes made with Theranos were the same mistakes made with Enron. We must learn to recognize that we are, by nature, trusting souls. Knowing that should lead us to a guiding slogan: "trust but verify."

The irony of Holmes dancing to "I Can't Touch This" is almost too perfect. How did you find that footage?

It was leaked to us.

"Elizabeth Holmes is now famous for her fraud. Who better to host the re-boot of 'The Apprentice.'"

Holmes is facing up to 20 years in prison for federal fraud charges, but Vanity Fair recently reported that she is seeking redemption, taking meetings with filmmakers for a possible documentary to share her "real" story. What do you think will become of Holmes in the long run?

It's usually a mistake to handicap a trial. My guess is that she will be convicted and do some prison time. But maybe she can convince jurors -- the way she convinced journalists, her board, and her investors -- that, on account of her noble intentions, she deserves to be found not guilty. "Somewhere, over the rainbow…"

After the trial, and possibly prison, I'm sure that EH will use her supporters (like Tim Draper) to find a way to use the virtual currency of her celebrity to rebrand herself and launch something new. Fitzgerald famously said that "there are no second acts in American lives." That may be the stupidest thing he ever said.

Donald Trump failed at virtually every business he ever embarked on. But he became a celebrity for being a fake businessman and used that celebrity -- and phony expertise -- to become president of the United States. Elizabeth Holmes is now famous for her fraud. Who better to host the re-boot of "The Apprentice." And then?

"You Can't Touch This!"

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

Disgraced stem cell researcher and celebrity surgeon Paolo Macchiarini.

(Photo Credit: SVT/Lars Granstrand)


Last week, the whistleblowers in the Paolo Macchiarini affair at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet went on the record here to detail the retaliation they suffered for trying to expose a star surgeon's appalling research misconduct.

Scientific fraud of the type committed by Macchiarini is rare, but studies suggest that it's on the rise.

The whistleblowers had discovered that in six published papers, Macchiarini falsified data, lied about the condition of patients and circumvented ethical approvals. As a result, multiple patients suffered and died. But Karolinska turned a blind eye for years.

Scientific fraud of the type committed by Macchiarini is rare, but studies suggest that it's on the rise. Just this week, for example, Retraction Watch and STAT together broke the news that a Harvard Medical School cardiologist and stem cell researcher, Piero Anversa, falsified data in a whopping 31 papers, which now have to be retracted. Anversa had claimed that he could regenerate heart muscle by injecting bone marrow cells into damaged hearts, a result that no one has been able to duplicate.

A 2009 study published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) found that about two percent of scientists admitted to committing fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in their work. That's a small number, but up to one third of scientists admit to committing "questionable research practices" that fall into a gray area between rigorous accuracy and outright fraud.

These dubious practices may include misrepresentations, research bias, and inaccurate interpretations of data. One common questionable research practice entails formulating a hypothesis after the research is done in order to claim a successful premise. Another highly questionable practice that can shape research is ghost-authoring by representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and other for-profit fields. Still another is gifting co-authorship to unqualified but powerful individuals who can advance one's career. Such practices can unfairly bolster a scientist's reputation and increase the likelihood of getting the work published.

The above percentages represent what scientists admit to doing themselves; when they evaluate the practices of their colleagues, the numbers jump dramatically. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, researchers estimated that 14 percent of other scientists commit serious misconduct, while up to 72 percent engage in questionable practices. While these are only estimates, the problem is clearly not one of just a few bad apples.

In the PLOS study, Daniele Fanelli says that increasing evidence suggests the known frauds are "just the 'tip of the iceberg,' and that many cases are never discovered" because fraud is extremely hard to detect.

Essentially everyone wants to be associated with big breakthroughs, and they may overlook scientifically shaky foundations when a major advance is claimed.

In addition, it's likely that most cases of scientific misconduct go unreported because of the high price of whistleblowing. Those in the Macchiarini case showed extraordinary persistence in their multi-year campaign to stop his deadly trachea implants, while suffering serious damage to their careers. Such heroic efforts to unmask fraud are probably rare.

To make matters worse, there are numerous players in the scientific world who may be complicit in either committing misconduct or covering it up. These include not only primary researchers but co-authors, institutional executives, journal editors, and industry leaders. Essentially everyone wants to be associated with big breakthroughs, and they may overlook scientifically shaky foundations when a major advance is claimed.

Another part of the problem is that it's rare for students in science and medicine to receive an education in ethics. And studies have shown that older, more experienced and possibly jaded researchers are more likely to fudge results than their younger, more idealistic colleagues.

So, given the steep price that individuals and institutions pay for scientific misconduct, what compels them to go down that road in the first place? According to the JRMS study, individuals face intense pressures to publish and to attract grant money in order to secure teaching positions at universities. Once they have acquired positions, the pressure is on to keep the grants and publishing credits coming in order to obtain tenure, be appointed to positions on boards, and recruit flocks of graduate students to assist in research. And not to be underestimated is the human ego.

Paolo Macchiarini is an especially vivid example of a scientist seeking not only fortune, but fame. He liberally (and falsely) claimed powerful politicians and celebrities, even the Pope, as patients or admirers. He may be an extreme example, but we live in an age of celebrity scientists who bring huge amounts of grant money and high prestige to the institutions that employ them.

The media plays a significant role in both glorifying stars and unmasking frauds. In the Macchiarini scandal, the media first lifted him up, as in NBC's laudatory documentary, "A Leap of Faith," which painted him as a kind of miracle-worker, and then brought him down, as in the January 2016 documentary, "The Experiments," which chronicled the agonizing death of one of his patients.

Institutions can also play a crucial role in scientific fraud by putting more emphasis on the number and frequency of papers published than on their quality. The whole course of a scientist's career is profoundly affected by something called the h-index. This is a number based on both the frequency of papers published and how many times the papers are cited by other researchers. Raising one's ranking on the h-index becomes an overriding goal, sometimes eclipsing the kind of patient, time-consuming research that leads to true breakthroughs based on reliable results.

Universities also create a high-pressured environment that encourages scientists to cut corners. They, too, place a heavy emphasis on attracting large monetary grants and accruing fame and prestige. This can lead them, just as it led Karolinska, to protect a star scientist's sloppy or questionable research. According to Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, who is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, "Karolinska defended its investment in an individual as opposed to the long-term health of the institution. People were dying, and they should have outsourced the investigation from the very beginning."

Having institutions investigate their own practices is a conflict of interest from the get-go, says Rosenberg.

Scientists, universities, and research institutions are also not immune to fads. "Hot" subjects attract grant money and confer prestige, incentivizing scientists to shift their research priorities in a direction that garners more grants. This can mean neglecting the scientist's true area of expertise and interests in favor of a subject that's more likely to attract grant money. In Macchiarini's case, he was allegedly at the forefront of the currently sexy field of regenerative medicine -- a field in which Karolinska was making a huge investment.

The relative scarcity of resources intensifies the already significant pressure on scientists. They may want to publish results rapidly, since they face many competitors for limited grant money, academic positions, students, and influence. The scarcity means that a great many researchers will fail while only a few succeed. Once again, the temptation may be to rush research and to show it in the most positive light possible, even if it means fudging or exaggerating results.

Though the pressures facing scientists are very real, the problem of misconduct is not inevitable.

Intense competition can have a perverse effect on researchers, according to a 2007 study in the journal Science of Engineering and Ethics. Not only does it place undue pressure on scientists to succeed, it frequently leads to the withholding of information from colleagues, which undermines a system in which new discoveries build on the previous work of others. Researchers may feel compelled to withhold their results because of the pressure to be the first to publish. The study's authors propose that more investment in basic research from governments could alleviate some of these competitive pressures.

Scientific journals, although they play a part in publishing flawed science, can't be expected to investigate cases of suspected fraud, says the German science blogger Leonid Schneider. Schneider's writings helped to expose the Macchiarini affair.

"They just basically wait for someone to retract problematic papers," he says.

He also notes that, while American scientists can go to the Office of Research Integrity to report misconduct, whistleblowers in Europe have no external authority to whom they can appeal to investigate cases of fraud.

"They have to go to their employer, who has a vested interest in covering up cases of misconduct," he says.

Science is increasingly international. Major studies can include collaborators from several different countries, and he suggests there should be an international body accessible to all researchers that will investigate suspected fraud.

Ultimately, says Rosenberg, the scientific system must incorporate trust. "You trust co-authors when you write a paper, and peer reviewers at journals trust that scientists at research institutions like Karolinska are acting with integrity."

Without trust, the whole system falls apart. It's the trust of the public, an elusive asset once it has been betrayed, that science depends upon for its very existence. Scientific research is overwhelmingly financed by tax dollars, and the need for the goodwill of the public is more than an abstraction.

The Macchiarini affair raises a profound question of trust and responsibility: Should multiple co-authors be held responsible for a lead author's misconduct?

Karolinska apparently believes so. When the institution at last owned up to the scandal, it vindictively found Karl Henrik-Grinnemo, one of the whistleblowers, guilty of scientific misconduct as well. It also designated two other whistleblowers as "blameworthy" for their roles as co-authors of the papers on which Macchiarini was the lead author.

As a result, the whistleblowers' reputations and employment prospects have become collateral damage. Accusations of research misconduct can be a career killer. Research grants dry up, employment opportunities evaporate, publishing becomes next to impossible, and collaborators vanish into thin air.

Grinnemo contends that co-authors should only be responsible for their discrete contributions, not for the data supplied by others.

"Different aspects of a paper are highly specialized," he says, "and that's why you have multiple authors. You cannot go through every single bit of data because you don't understand all the parts of the article."

This is especially true in multidisciplinary, translational research, where there are sometimes 20 or more authors. "You have to trust co-authors, and if you find something wrong you have to notify all co-authors. But you couldn't go through everything or it would take years to publish an article," says Grinnemo.

Though the pressures facing scientists are very real, the problem of misconduct is not inevitable. Along with increased support from governments and industry, a change in academic culture that emphasizes quality over quantity of published studies could help encourage meritorious research.

But beyond that, trust will always play a role when numerous specialists unite to achieve a common goal: the accumulation of knowledge that will promote human health, wealth, and well-being.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly credited The New York Times with breaking the news of the Anversa retractions, rather than Retraction Watch and STAT, which jointly published the exclusive on October 14th. The piece in the Times ran on October 15th. We regret the error.]

Eve Herold
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.

Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, then a professor of Regenerative Medicine at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (Sweden), looks on during a plenary session at the Science of the Future international scientific conference, on September 17, 2014.

(Credit: ITAR-TASS Photo Agency / Alamy Stock Photo)


[Editor's Note: This is the first comprehensive account of the whistleblowers' side of a scandal that rocked the most hallowed halls in science – the same establishment that just last week awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. This still-unfolding saga is a cautionary tale about corruption, hype, and power that raises profound questions about how to uphold integrity in scientific research.]

When the world-famous Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm hired Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, he was considered a star surgeon and groundbreaking stem cell researcher. Handsome, charming and charismatic, Macchiarini was known as a trailblazer in a field that holds hope for curing a vast array of diseases.

It appeared that Macchiarini's miracle cure was working just as expected.

He claimed that he was regenerating human windpipes by seeding plastic scaffolds with stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow—a holy grail in medicine because the body will not reject its own cells. For patients who had trouble breathing due to advanced illness, a trachea made of their own cells would be a game-changer. Supposedly, the bone marrow cells repopulated the synthetic scaffolds with functioning, mucus-secreting epithelial cells, creating a new trachea that would become integrated into the patient's respiratory system as a living, breathing part. Macchiarini said as much in a dazzling presentation to his new colleagues at Karolinska, which is home to the Nobel Assembly – the body that has awarded the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine since 1901.

Karl-Henrik Grinnemo was a young cardiothoracic surgeon and researcher at Karolinska in 2010, when Macchiarini was hired. "He gave a fantastic presentation with lots of animation and everyone was impressed," Grinnemo says of his first encounter with Macchiarini. Grinnemo's own work focused on heart and aortic valve regeneration, also in the field of stem cell research. He and his colleagues were to help establish an interdisciplinary umbrella organization, under Macchiarini's leadership, called the Advanced Center for Translational Regenerative Medicine, which would aim to deliver cures from Karolinska's world-class laboratories to the bedsides of patients in desperate need.

Whistleblower Karl-Henrik Grinnemo and the Karolinska Institute.

(Courtesy Grinnemo)

Little did Grinnemo know that when KI hired Macchiarini, they had ignored a warning that the star surgeon had been accused of scientific misconduct by a colleague who had worked with him at the University of Florence. That blind eye would eventually cost three patients their lives in Sweden.

"A MIRACLE CURE"?

It has been said that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and it wasn't long before Macchiarini announced that he had a patient in dire need of one of the new artificial tracheas. The patient, a native of Eritrea who had emigrated to Iceland, had a slowly growing tumor on his trachea. Macchiarini had previously generated new windpipes from human donor tracheas outside of Sweden, but the Icelandic patient was the first to receive a synthetic trachea implant at Karolinska University Hospital. Macchiarini had already performed a similar procedure with decellularized donor tracheas on other patients around Europe, but not much was known at the time about their outcomes.

Of course, to justify a radical procedure such as removing a patient's trachea, one would need compelling evidence of effectiveness in animal studies, as well as an exhaustion of all other treatment alternatives. Macchiarini claimed that both conditions were met. He performed the implantation of the synthetic trachea as if he had received a hospital exemption. This is comparable to what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies as "compassionate use," a procedure performed only in extreme circumstances, usually when the patient is terminal, and when no available alternative has worked.

Macchiarini personally invited Grinnemo to watch the all-day surgery, and, once the transplant was done after 10 grueling hours, Macchiarini asked him to close the patient. Then the 36-year-old man was transferred to another hospital, where Grinnemo and other attending physicians had little opportunity to follow his long-term recovery.

Two months later, Macchiarini approached Grinnemo with an invitation to be one of multiple co-authors on a paper about the case targeted for the New England Journal of Medicine. This was a huge opportunity for a junior researcher, and Grinnemo gladly agreed to write a one-month follow-up report on the Icelandic patient's clinical condition. He consulted the patient's medical records, which described a man with an infection in one lung but otherwise doing well, and wrote up his contribution. The patient had already been transferred back to Iceland by then and was home from the hospital. It appeared that Macchiarini's miracle cure was working just as expected.

But the ground was beginning to shake.

"We cannot find one word of evidence that points to regeneration induced by stem cells."

On September 2, 2011, three months after the Icelandic patient's surgery, a professor in Leuven, Belgium sent a written warning to KI's vice chancellor, Harriett Wallberg-Henriksson, stating that Macchiarini was guilty of prior research misconduct. This letter was forwarded to the new president at KI, professor Anders Hamsten, urging him to put a halt to more synthetic trachea implants. The accusations were grave.

Professor Pierre Delaere at Kathiolieke Universiteit asserted that synthetic tracheas coated with bone marrow cells did not, as Macchiarini had claimed, transform into living tracheas. He cited "countless" failures in animal experiments and called the outcome of Macchiarini's previous human surgeries "disastrous…half the patients died. The others are in a palliative setting….We cannot find one word of evidence that points to regeneration induced by stem cells."

Once again, KI simply ignored the warning, and Grinnemo and the 24 co-authors on the splashy academic paper about the latest surgery didn't even know about it. In the meantime, the New England Journal of Medicine rejected it for lacking a longer follow-up on the patients and missing data on how well the implants had integrated with the patient's respiratory system, so Macchiarini submitted it to The Lancet instead.

And he kept performing his experimental surgeries.

Soon there was a second transplant patient, a 30-year-old American man named Christopher Lyles. After his operation at KI, he returned to the U.S and the Swedish doctors were unable to follow his progress. Three months after his surgery, they learned that he had died at his home.

Paolo Macchiarini with Christopher Lyles, the American patient on whom he performed a trachea transplant in Stockholm in 2011. Lyles died a few months later.

(Public domain)

Only four months after Lyles died, the third patient, a 22-year-old Turkish woman, received one of Macchiarini's grafts. In all three patients, Macchiarini had claimed that they were in dire straights—terminal if not for the hope of a trachea transplant, and he claimed a hospital exemption in all three cases. In fact, Grinnemo says, all three had been in stable condition before their surgeries—a reality Macchiarini did not share with his collaborators and co-authors on two academic papers about the surgeries that were subsequently published in The Lancet.

The Turkish woman's story is especially tragic. The young woman had initially undergone surgery elsewhere to fix an unrelated problem—hand sweating--but wound up with an accidentally damaged trachea that set her on a course of utter devastation. She sought help from Macchiarini, but his graft operation left her "living in hell," says Grinnemo. In intensive care afterward, her airways were producing so much mucus that they had to be cleared every four hours around the clock. The procedure "is like someone keeping your head under water every fourth hour until you almost suffocate to death. This is something that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy," says Grinnemo.

By the spring of 2013, six months after Macchiarini's operation, the graft began to collapse. Several metal stents were inserted into her airways, but each one only worked for a short while. Macchiarini decided to remove the first plastic trachea and implant a new one. It seemed she couldn't get any worse, but after the second transplant, the young woman further deteriorated. Her airway secretions only increased; she had to undergo thousands of bronchoscopies, where an instrument was pushed down her throat into her lungs, and hundreds of surgeries during her three-year stint in the intensive care unit. Her body couldn't tolerate much more.

The whistleblowers realized that, despite Macchiarini's claims of successful operations in several now-published papers, the patients had been mutilated.

Grinnemo, together with fellow KI physicians Matthias Corbascio, Oscar Simonson and Thomas Fux, who were all involved in the care of the Turkish woman, became alarmed when the Icelandic patient came back to their hospital in the fall of 2013 with similar complaints. They realized that, despite Macchiarini's claims of successful operations in several now-published papers, the patients had been mutilated.

Both the Icelandic patient and the Turkish woman were too incapacitated to speak for themselves, so in the late fall of 2013, Grinnemo and his three concerned colleagues reached out to the patients' relatives seeking permission to review their medical records. It took weeks to receive the permissions, but once they did, what they found stunned them.

The Icelandic patient had developed fistulas (holes) between the artificial trachea and his esophagus, and had been fitted with several stents. Soon his esophagus also had to be removed, which Macchiarini was aware of. He should have reported these complications in the articles on which he was lead author, Grinnemo contends, and also should have informed his co-authors, each of whom had been responsible for writing up discrete sections of the papers. But Macchiarini had described each transplant as a success and had greatly exaggerated, if not outright lied, about how each patient had fared.

THE WHISTLEBLOWERS FIGHT BACK

Grinnemo and several other suspicious colleagues decided to launch an investigation. The result was a 500-page report identifying the synthetic tracheas as the problem and revealing that Macchiarini had falsified data and suppressed critical information in his reporting. He had even invented biopsies of the grafts, claiming that the marrow cells had populated them with functioning epithelial cells, while there was no real evidence of the patients' cells growing to line the tracheas.

The whistleblowers also discovered that Macchiarini had never received ethical clearance from Sweden's Human Ethical Review Board, nor had he gotten approval for his plastic tracheas from the Medical Product Agency, the Swedish counterpart to the FDA. He had relied entirely on his ability to do the surgeries under the hospital exemption, which he made everyone believe that he had obtained thanks to his star power.

What Macchiarini was doing, the investigators realized, was experimentation on living human subjects; he had circumvented the normal oversight protocols that exist to protect such subjects.

At a procedural meeting with his colleagues, including Dr. Ulf Lockowandt, the head of Karolinska University Hospital's Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Macchiarini dismissed the patients' complications as "manageable."

But among the large interdisciplinary team whose members had knowledge only of their own discrete specialties, doubts about Macchiarini's technique were festering. Complications in the patients only worsened when the tracheas inevitably began to collapse. There was a bursting open of sutures, holes in tissues adjacent to the implants, the disintegration of tissues that clogged bronchial passages. In far more than half of all the patients Macchiarini had operated on in several countries, patients died a lingering and agonizing death.

The last thing the whistleblowers expected was for the full weight of the institution to come crashing down against them.

When Grinnemo and his fellow investigators dug all this up, they decided they had to report it to the very top of Karolinska, to the institute's president, Anders Hamsten, so that he could stop Macchiarini from performing any further transplants. The last thing the whistleblowers expected was for the full weight of the institution to come crashing down against them.

"THEY WANTED TO SILENCE EVERYTHING"

KI had ample reason to sweep criticisms of Macchiarini under the rug. Up to 100 patients were about to be recruited for an international clinical study in which Macchiarini would do his implants—a nightmarish prospect considering his track record. But KI stood to receive millions of dollars in a government grant to conduct the study across Europe and Russia.

Still other incentives existed for KI to suppress Macchiarini's record. Plans were underway to establish a stem cell center in Hong Kong with over $45 million provided by a wealthy Chinese businessman. At the center, Macchiarini would be able to do his trachea transplants on patients in Asia. And in addition to the financial incentives to keep Macchiarini's brand associated with KI, many high-powered individuals were involved in his initial recruitment and didn't want their reputations tarnished, Grinnemo says. KI not only ignored the whistleblowers' allegations; punishment against them was swift and decisive.

On March 7, 2014, Grinnemo and the other whistleblowers met with Dr. Hamsten, in addition to two of Macchiarini's supervisors and the director of KI's Regenerative Network. They presented their findings and requested an official investigation by KI, including scrutiny of the now-six published research papers in which Macchiarini had claimed the success of his implants in humans. The whistleblowers also told the leadership about some rat studies Macchiarini had published in a prestigious journal that appeared to rely on falsified data.

Instead of the welcoming reception they expected, the room bristled with hostility. "I basically forced them to agree to an investigation," Grinnemo says, "but it was a very tough meeting. The feeling I got was that they wanted to silence everything and that they would continue to silence me and the other whistleblowers. We were already feeling the backlash."

From the left, whistleblowers Matthias Corbascio, Oscar Simonson, Thomas Fux and Karl-Henrik Grinnemo.

(Courtesy Grinnemo)

Previously, Grinnemo had confronted Macchiarini with questions about patients he had implanted in Russia prior to his stint at Karolinska. "Paolo Macchiarini realized we were onto something and he became very angry. He said he would do everything in his power to make my life miserable," Grinnemo recalls.

Macchiarini made good on his threat by filing a complaint about Grinnemo with the Swedish Research Council, the main funder of research in Sweden. At the time, Macchiarini and Grinnemo had jointly submitted a grant application on an aortic valve regeneration project, which the Council had approved. Macchiarini suddenly complained that Grinnemo had stolen his data on aortic valve regeneration, even though, unlike Grinnemo, Macchiarini was not a heart surgeon and had conducted no research on heart structures. In reality, all of the data had been generated by Grinnemo. The Council did a review and concluded that Grinnemo had not stolen the data, but Macchiarini spread rumors throughout KI that the young researcher was guilty of scientific misconduct. "He wanted to discredit me because he knew I was dangerous and he wanted to stop anyone from believing me," Grinnemo says.

In spite of the findings from the Council that he had committed no scientific misconduct, KI opened an investigation—not of Macchiarini, but of Grinnemo himself. It soon became clear that KI also wanted to discredit Grinnemo and to silence any possible rumors about Macchiarini's conduct. The whistleblowers continued to push forward, however, and over a period of several weeks they wrote to president Hamsten four times, asking that KI investigate the deadly transplants still being promoted by Macchiarini as some kind of miracle cure.

After four written requests, Hamsten replied that if the whistleblowers had concerns about Macchiarini, they should contact their supervisors or write a formal complaint. But the whistleblowers had already contacted several individuals in supervisory roles who had made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with the affair. It was obvious that KI would resist any investigation of Macchiarini and that no one, outside of the whistleblowers, wanted to take any responsibility for what could amount to a major scandal at one of the world's most powerful academic institutions.

The whistleblowers had another hostile and unproductive meeting with several doctors at KI with whom they shared a letter they had written to the journal Nature Communications, which published Macchiarini's article on rat experimentation, urging them to investigate whether he had falsified the data. Once again, the whistleblowers met with a wall of resistance. Grinnemo was now discredited because of the aortic valve grant application, the doctors reminded him, and no investigation or retraction of the Nature Communications article would be pursued.

In June 2014, KI made its retaliation against Grinnemo official by putting its legal counsel in charge of its investigation of his grant application. The university's ethical board then concluded that Grinnemo should have informed Macchiarini more clearly that he submitted the application to the Swedish Research Council and that he should have obtained a written acceptance from Macchiarini before proceeding with the application. KI could not find Grinnemo guilty of research misconduct, but accused him of "carelessness" regarding the usage of data—which was his own data all along.

A few years later, Grinnemo was totally cleared by both the Central Ethical Review Board and KI. However, the rumors surrounding the investigation and the finding that he hadn't "used data correctly" in a grant application had done their damage to his reputation. Since then, he has not received a single research grant. "You can't appeal the findings," Grinnemo says. "I don't know if I will ever get more research money. I'm totally dead."

The whistleblowers made multiple appeals to Dr. Lockowandt, the head of the Department of Cardiothoracic surgery, for an investigation into Macchiarini's implants, but they were stonewalled from the beginning. Lockowandt did nothing.

"The heads of departments at the KUH and KI didn't actually have that much power," Grinnemo explains. "Dr. Lockowandt thought he was fighting for his own career and position. He's basically a good person who decided to go the route of an administrator, and if you have conflicts with your superiors, your career will be over." In other words, a real investigation of Macchiarini's record could not happen with so much money and prestige riding on the continued presence of the star surgeon.

By August 11, 2014, the whistleblowers had made repeated requests of Dr. Hamsten for a meeting to present the data inconsistencies between Macchiarini's patients' medical records and what he had reported in numerous articles, all published in prestigious medical journals. When they finally received the answer—a cold instruction to submit a written notification to the heads of their departments—it was clear that KI was giving them the runaround.

But rather than simply ignore the whistleblowers, KI apparently decided to double down, trying to discredit them in an intimidation campaign.

KI even went so far as to force the chief medical officer of Karolinska University Hospital, Johan Bratt, to report the whistleblowers to Swedish police, claiming that they violated the law and the patients' privacy when they went through the patients´ charts and submitted their appeals for investigation to KI and the Central Ethical Review Board. KI claimed that their report revealed the identities of patients, even though they had been careful to anonymize all the information. The police interrogated several of the whistleblowers and concluded that they had done no wrong, but the incident made it clear how low KI would sink in its desire to harass them.

"You can't appeal the findings. I don't know if I will ever get more research money. I'm totally dead."

In private, Grinnemo's colleagues supported him, but feared coming forward out of the fear of losing their jobs. Grinnemo himself was in a tough spot. "I knew it would be difficult for me to do research but I hoped my position as a surgeon was secure," he says. "But after the New York Times article, I realized even that position was not as safe as I had thought."

THE MEDIA CATCHES ON -- WITH A PRICE

On November 24, 2014, The New York Times published a front-page story about Paolo Macchiarini based on the whistleblowers' investigation, which had leaked to the press. Officials at KI suspected one or more of the whistleblowers of being the leakers, but the publicity forced the top brass to at least appear to act. The next day they asked Dr. Bengt Gerdin, a professor of surgery at Sweden's Uppsala University, to do an investigation of Dr. Macchiarini. It's hard not to conclude that, after months of stonewalling on an institutional investigation, the Times article compelled them to do something. But KI still did not take any of the pressure off of Grinnemo and his three fellow whistleblowers.

One by one, each was informed that he would receive a formal warning from Dr. Lockowandt, the head of the cardiothoracic clinic, alleging that they had violated patient privacy by reading medical records. The whistleblowers countered that they had informed consents. They also asked for a meeting with Lockowandt and KI's attorneys, to which they brought a union representative and someone from the Swedish version of the American Medical Association. The union representative informed KI's attorneys that the doctors were actually required by law to consult a patient's medical records when the patient's life is in danger. Not doing so would have been a crime. Karolinska backed off on the formal warnings (which would have been the last step before actual termination) after that. But they found other ways to retaliate.

One whistleblower, Oscar Simonson, had been offered a residency at Karolinska University Hospital, but that offer was withdrawn without explanation. Grinnemo had expected to receive an advisor position in cardiothoracic surgery, but that promotion also evaporated. In addition, the number of surgeries he was tapped to perform was reduced and he was relegated to doing the "less popular" standard heart surgeries that began late in the afternoon and evenings.

The grinding day-to-day pressure on the whistleblowers never let up. On December 19, 2014, Dr. Lockowandt informed all four that they had been on the verge of being fired, but that hospital attorneys changed their minds at the last minute. By then not only were their reputations in tatters, but they had invested an estimated 10,000 hours of labor investigating Macchiarini's misconduct, appealing to KI, and defending themselves against KI's harassment.

When interviewed for this article, Grinnemo said, "I have never had a single day of vacation from this situation. In addition to dealing with it, I've been doing surgery and taking care of patients. I've had trouble sleeping, and it has affected my family. I haven't been able to focus on my family, and I feel guilty toward my kids." Of all the whistleblowers, Grinnemo seems to have received the brunt of the backlash.

KI was finally pushed to further action by yet more negative coverage of the Macchiarini affair in the media. In January 2015, Swedish National Television aired an exposé covering the Macchiarini surgeries and the desperate plight of the patients. In response, the Swedish public demanded that KI make a course correction. On February 19, KI withdrew all of its threats of formal warnings to the whistleblowers.

As the press event began, KI called the heads of the whistleblowers' departments to tell them to make sure the four didn't attend.

However, progress was incremental. On April 16, KI's ethical committee, which had done its own investigation, acquitted Macchiarini of allegations of scientific misconduct. This is the same university ethical board that had reprimanded Grinnemo over his usage of data in the aortic valve grant application.

The whistleblowers maintain that throughout the summer of 2015, KI was still far more focused on covering up the Macchiarini affair than on getting to the bottom of it. On May 13, the professor from Uppsala submitted the results of his independent investigation, in which he concluded that seven out of seven published articles in which Macchiarini was the lead author entailed the fabrication of data.

KI ignored the report. In August 2015, KI's president announced that Macchiarini had been cleared of all charges of scientific misconduct and that, magically, ethical approvals existed for the patient from Iceland. Macchiarini got a reprimand for being "a little sloppy" in his published descriptions of his patients. Then KI, eager to placate the public and salvage its reputation, held a press conference to announce the presumed innocence of its star surgeon.

As the press event began, KI called the heads of the whistleblowers' departments to tell them to make sure the four didn't attend, according to Grinnemo.

"They seemed to think we would come crashing in to the press conference and make a scene. It's ridiculous, but that's what they thought," says Grinnemo.

Around this time, KI asked that the whistleblowers compile and forward all of their correspondence with the independent investigator on the grounds that they were suspected of manipulating his investigation. The accusation went nowhere; the whistleblowers had barely spoken with him.

Then came a request from KI's IT department for the whistleblowers to compile and submit all of their emails for the preceding year. They were simply told that "an anonymous person" had made the request.

Throughout 2015, KI continued to go after the whistleblowers aggressively. That August, they were so discouraged that they felt they would never obtain any additional grants from the Swedish Research Council or any other funding organizations, and that their academic careers were over. To add insult to injury, a Swedish newspaper published an article defending Macchiarini and concluding that he was not guilty of violating the Helsinki Declaration, a statute put into effect after World War II protecting all humans from unauthorized medical experimentation.

THE TIDE TURNS, BUT REDEMPTION IS ELUSIVE

Then in November, they received a request from a Swedish filmmaker to be interviewed about the Macchiarini affair. Not knowing what angle the film was expected to take, they each put in hours in front of the camera. They wouldn't know the results of their interviews until January 2016, when the three-part documentary, "The Experiments," aired on Swedish television. The film documented the tortuous death of a Russian woman and the suffering of other patients who had received Macchiarini's implants.

That same month, a devastating article on Paolo Macchiarini was published in the American magazine Vanity Fair. Titled "The Celebrity Surgeon Who Used Love, Money and the Pope to Scam an NBC News Producer," the article revealed Macchiarini as an even more prolific fabulist and liar than anyone had remotely suspected. Not only did he fabricate data for multiple scientific papers, he had also lied about everything from his alleged medical training and celebrity connections to his personal relationship status.

Ironically, the woman who ultimately dismantled Macchiarini was Benita Alexander, a former producer for NBC News who was at one point engaged to marry him in a lavish ceremony that Macchiarini promised would be officiated by Pope Francis. Except that he didn't know the Pope, and he was already married to one woman and living with another.

Her story of heartbreak infuriated the public. The full list of people who had believed Macchiarini's almost countless fabrications may never be known—a tribute to his considerable personal charisma. But after the "The Experiments" and the Vanity Fair article, the public had had enough of Paolo Macchiarini. They demanded that KI's president step down and that Macchiarini be fired.

TV producer Benita Alexander appeared as a guest on Dr. Oz's show on February 14th, 2018 to discuss Dr. Macchiarini's deception. "He railroaded my life," she said.

(Screenshot from www.doctoroz.com)

In February 2016, there was a cascade of resignations and firings at KI. First, president Anders Hamsten stepped down. Then several top KI officials, including the General Secretary of the Nobel Assembly, the Dean of Research, and an advisor to KI's president, were either fired or stepped down. On March 3, several members of the board were replaced. The whistleblowers received an award for coming forward by an organization called Transparency International, but instead of heaving a sigh of relief, they only felt a continued sense of foreboding.

"We all felt very vulnerable because we knew that KI would retaliate in some way," says Grinnemo. A fellow whistleblower, Dr. Corbascio, gave an interview on a prime time news program saying that KI was a corrupt institution and should apologize to the patients' families and even pay them for their suffering. After that, both he and another colleague came under intensified scrutiny at work. They say that their supervisors, who were deeply involved in collaborations with Macchiarini, watched everything they did, apparently looking for a reason to fire them.

Grinnemo and Simonson both left KI to work for Uppsala University. But the lasting effects of the scandal followed them there. They still couldn't obtain any grants for new research, and other scientists at KI and elsewhere were unwilling to collaborate with them for fear of their own work being "tainted" by association.

On March 23, 2016, Paolo Macchiarini was finally sacked by KI. Still, the whistleblowers couldn't claim victory.

"Our aim," says Grinnemo, "was not to get him sacked but to stop the grafts, and we knew he would continue to do them in other countries. The clinical trial aiming to recruit 100 or so patients hadn't been halted. We tried to warn the Russian authorities and the EU grant office, and wanted them to stop the grant to Macchiarini. There was no response, so at that time we didn't know if the clinical trial would go forward."

Still, there was reason to hope. News of Macchiarini's scientific fraud, not to mention his personal debacle with Benita Alexander, had made its way around scientific circles in Germany and Britain, where a new investigation began.

Eventually, the entire board at Karolinska was replaced. Under its new president, the institute issued a decree this past summer finding the now thoroughly disgraced Macchiarini guilty of scientific misconduct, and concluding that six of his research papers should be retracted.

But in a cruelly ironic twist, KI took the whistleblowers' own investigation and turned it against them. KI's report found Grinnemo also guilty of scientific misconduct for apparently falling short in the care of the Icelandic patient, even though his role in the case had been minimal. It was like a punch in the gut, because the judgment cast Grinnemo as equally blameworthy to Macchiarini. It also failed to recognize that he had long ago not only withdrawn his name from the offending paper, but lobbied for years to have it retracted.

"This sends the message that whistleblowers in research will be punished. That's a serious problem."

The KI report also established the new category of "blameworthy" to describe two of the whistleblowers for their roles as co-authors in some of the papers. The whistleblowers did not receive a chance to respond to the new accusations before a decision was made to publicly reprimand them.

That decision can't be appealed.

Simonson told Science Magazine, "This sends the message that whistleblowers in research will be punished. That's a serious problem."

These days, Macchiarini is lying low but still publishing his supposed stem cell research, most recently on baboons. A paper published in March of this year in the Journal of Biomedical Materials lists his affiliation as Kazan Federal University in Russia, but in April 2017, the university fired him. He's rumored to be living in Italy and couldn't be reached for this article. He was investigated for criminal activity in Sweden and the case was closed without charges, but Grinnemo says that another prosecutor is now considering whether to bring charges against him for "aggravated manslaughter."

At KI, only Karin Dahlman Wright, who was the Institute's acting president during several months of these events, responded to a request for comment, but she claimed a near-total unawareness of the whistleblowers' narrative. Other officials there declined to be interviewed.

KI's clinical trial that was aiming to recruit new patients for biologically engineered tracheas is no longer happening. The European Commission posted on their research portal that the trial ended on March 31, 2017, stating: "Grant Agreement terminated."

As for Grinnemo, Simonson, Corbascio and Fux, they are still fighting for their careers. Grinnemo is currently suing KI for a chance to defend himself against its accusations of scientific misconduct. He's also claiming damages for lost grant funding, thousands of hours spent defending himself, and harm to his reputation. Whether he will prevail in court remains to be seen.

"KI did a very good job of destroying our careers," says Simonson. "They didn't do anything else well, but they did a very thorough job of that."

Eve Herold
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.