Intended for healthcare professionals


Stem cell research: time for a dose of realism

BMJ 2017; 356 doi: (Published 31 January 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;356:j443
  1. Michael Brooks, science journalist, London, UK
  1. mb{at}

After the fall from grace of Paolo Macchiarini, whose artificial trachea transplants ended in the death of several patients, Michael Brooks asks whether there has been too much hype around stem cell therapy and what can realistically be achieved

Martin Birchall’s profile on the University College London website reads, “In 2008, with Prof Macchiarini, I co-led the team which performed the world's first stem cell based organ transplant.” It’s a claim that the professor of laryngology might wish to remove during the next edit of his CV.1

Between June 2011 and July 2013 Paolo Macchiarini inserted stem cell derived tracheal transplants into three patients at the Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden. The transplants caused serious complications that proved fatal in two cases, and the ethics of the surgery have been seriously criticised in several investigations and inquiries. After a great deal of external pressure, the Karolinska Institute eventually terminated Macchiarini’s employment and several senior staff resigned.

Macchiarini maintains that he and his team acted properly. However, the implications of the case go far beyond his employer’s reputation. UCL has launched an investigation into its own links with the Macchiarini affair, and Birchall is feeling the taint of association. “It most definitely has affected me,” he says.

Watch the hype

The slew of negative publicity has come at a critical time for stem cell research. The field has also been criticised for hyping results. A study …

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