Wednesday, 4 January 2017

CROSSPOST: Professor Macchiarini, because Medical University of Hannover wants it so

This is a crosspost of the original, uncensured version of a post relating facts and developments related to the research ethical and scientific misconduct scandal surrounding Paolo Macchiarini from the For Better Science blog. The crosspost has been prompted by legal threats having forced Leonid Schneider to remove relevant details regarding the German researcher team Thorsten Walles and Heike Walles from the post. More details and background on how I view this development can be found here.

A similar crosspost of a For Better Science post on the specific Macchiarini-linked history of the Walles themselves can be found here.

*** BEGINNING OF CROSSPOST (All of this is citation, of the original version of this post by Leonid Schneider, fetched from this cash version):

Professor Macchiarini, because Medical University of Hannover wants it so

If these days you should bump into the miracle surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, do not just greet him with some offhand “Ciao Paolo”. But also “Hello, Doctor Macchiarini” would not be respectful enough. As a saying goes among German clinicians: you must take your time, namely by addressing the great man in full as “Professor Doctor Macchiarini”. As we know, after investigations into the deaths and mutilation of a large number of his patients, the former star of regenerative medicine was sacked from his professorship at the Swedish Karolinska Institutet (KI), so that title is now definitely gone. Macchiarini’s other professorships which he used to convincingly carry in his CV, namely those from the University of Paris in France and University of Florence in Italy, proved to be fictional (see also KI report here). However, his adjunct professorship from the Medical University of Hannover (Medizinische Hochschule Hannover, MHH) in Germany is very much real. Here for a change it is not Macchiarini who is cheating, but the German university which allows him to carry that academic title against the state’s law on adjunct professorship, which binds it to ongoing teaching duties. Fortunately, the federal state of Lower Saxony (which owns this Hannover university) doesn’t seem to mind either. In fact, their officer for data protection told me it was none of my business asking whether Professor Macchiarini had been giving any lectures at MHH in the last years.
Macchiarini was awarded the title of adjunct (ausserplanmässiger) professor by the MHH in 2001 (some background here). Using this faculty association, he was also able to bring his loyal acolyte Philipp Jungebluth to a prize-winning medical doctorate at MHH in 2010. Whatever the legal frame has been back in 2001, the higher education law (Hochschulgesetz) of the federal state of Lower Saxony stipulates in its current version from 2007, §35a, “Adjunct Professors”:
“1. Junior professors who meet the requirements of § 30 para. 4 sentence 2 and who are not employed as professors after the end of their employment are entitled to have the title “adjunct professor”, as long as they engage in student teaching. 2. Other persons who fulfill the prerequisites for professors may be awarded the title of “Adjunct Professor” for the duration of their engagement  in student teaching if they prove a previous successful teaching activity of several years. 3. The details are regulated by the guidelines on habilitation”.
In a nutshell, this means MHH can only grant the adjunct professorship to Macchiarini for as long as he is teaching their students. Well, is he? The Italian surgeon departed from MHH in 2004 for Barcelona, and left behind a research project, freshly funded by the German Research Society DFG, with the title “Development of a bioartificial trachea”, part of the larger DFG-funding scheme “Lung Transplantation”, organized by his MHH clinic head, heart surgeon and founder of a large centre for “Biotechnology and Artificial Organs”(LEBAO), Axel Haverich. Apparently, the creation of artificial tracheas was carried on in Macchiarini’s absence by his LEBAO collaborators Heike Mertsching (now Walles) and her future husband Thorsten Walles. MHH’s head of press communications Stefan Zorn told me Haverich’s team aborted that research already in 2006. Apparently they did not mind receiving its DFG funding for 3 more years afterwards.
The Walles couple eventually moved to the University of Würzburg and tested their Macchiarini-co-developed method (Macchiarini et al 2004, Walles et al, 2004) on two more human patients (as reported in a book by a journalist Bernhard Albrecht). One died shortly after receiving a pig-intestine-based trachea transplant, another one (an Indian immigrant) received a piece of decellurised pig intestine, which apparently quickly failed as evidenced by re-opened tracheostoma. That patient eventually committed suicide.
Update 10.12.2016. My investigations led to a legal action of the Walles couple against myself. Details in the main story here.
So much for Macchiarini’s research at MHH after his departure. But what about his student teaching and medical activities? I was informed that Macchiarini hasn’t been visiting Germany since 2013, but this may have changed in the meanwhile, since he recently claimed to have operated patients in Germany in an interview with one of his Russian sycophants.
I placed these questions to Zorn, the PR responsible at MHH:
  • which courses have been offered by Prof Macchiarini at MHH since 2013?
  • should Prof Macchiarini not comply with his mandatory teaching obligations at the MHH, how does the MHH intend to react?
  • is Prof Macchiarini still clinically active at the MHH, and if not, since when?
Unfortunately, Zorn completely stopped communicating with me long ago. Most probably because I published two critical articles about the MHH’s patriarch and patron saint Haverich, who promised to grow a living heart in his lab before his upcoming retirement and whose private company developed growing heart valve transplants which Haverich’s own papers somehow failed to convincingly prove as actually growing.
Since all my previous emails to Zorn went unanswered, I forwarded my original inquiry as a complaint to the responsible authority, namely Office for Data Protection of the state Lower Saxony. Then Zorn suddenly wrote back, presenting as evidence a confirmation of receipt email which he actually originally addressed not to me, but to himself. In any case, Zorn chose not to reply to my questions. Instead, the state’s officially independent and utterly unbiased officer for data protection, Christoph Lahmann, wrote to me. Lahmann declared that my inquiry on Macchiarini’s teaching activities should not be answered by MHH since it concerns the professor’s personal sphere:
“On the admissibility of the transfer of personal data from authorities to third parties outside the public sphere, I refer to the Lower Saxony Data Protection Act (NDSG), §13. Here, the conditions under which a transmission is permissible from the point of view of data protection are determined. As a so-called authority standard, §13 NDSG allows data transmission under the stated conditions, but does not oblige the public authority to transmit this data. The authority may, for example, reject the data transmission with regard to the administrative burden, even if the legal requirements of the NSDG are fulfilled.  […]
In your application, you refer to the freedom of information act (FOIA) of Lower Saxony. A FOIA is indeed a standard for public sector information, provided the requested information is actually available to the public authority and there are no grounds for refusal (eg protection of personal data, protection of company and business secrets, employee data protection, copyrights, etc.). 12 federal states and the Federal Government [of Germany, -LS] have issued freedom of information acts. There is no such freedom of information act in Lower Saxony.
I hope to have helped you with these explanations”.
That was indeed helpful, certainly for MHH. Lahmann basically rushed to warn Zorn that he doesn’t have to tell me and my readers anything, while instructing me and everyone else that one professor’s university curriculum is nobody’s business. Basically, even if Prof. Macchiarini should be currently teaching students on trachea regeneration (personally, I think any such lecture at MHH should be televised worldwide) or even be operating patients at the Hannover university clinic, we are not entitled to find out. Most likely however, neither is happening. The MHH is probably simply quietly breaking the state law, but thanks to the kind Dr Lahmann from the state’s authority, we are now denied the evidence.
In fact, Lahmann has excellent colleagues elsewhere in Germany who took upon themselves the heroic task of protecting their local universities from nosy inquires (see my reporting here). These brave data protection officers basically declared to me that every single thing happening on the university campus falls under “research and teaching”, and as such exempt from FOIA. That’s because in Germany, we trust doctors and scientists so much that we sometimes put them above the law. Anyone wants to place a bet on how the University of Würzburg will answer my FOIA inquiry about the trachea transplants done by the Walles couple?


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