Paolo Macchiarini

Paolo Macchiarini, The Celebrity Surgeon Who Pioneered Stem Cell Medicine — Then Became Known As ‘Dr. Death’

Published December 11, 2023
Updated December 12, 2023

In 2011, Dr. Paolo Macchiarini revolutionized transplant science when he successfully placed the world's first synthetic trachea into a man in Sweden — but soon, his patients began dying in droves.

In her documentary A Leap of Faith (2014), newscaster Meredith Vieira told the audience: “Just imagine a world where any injured or diseased organ or body part you have is simply replaced by a new artificial one, literally manmade in the lab, just for you.” This incredible future, Vieira explained, was within grasp thanks to a surgeon named Paolo Macchiarini.

Macchiarini had risen to fame in 2008 when he performed a revolutionary operation on a young mother, replacing her windpipe with a donated trachea lined with stem cells from her bone marrow. This, it seemed, heralded a new age in modern medicine. And Macchiarini became a hero doctor who performed almost two dozen “tracheal regeneration procedures.”

But Paolo Macchiarini was not what he seemed. Before long, his patients began to suffer from horrific side effects — and most of them died. It also soon came to light that the “hero doctor” had not only embellished much of his resume but that he was a shameless pathological liar in his personal life.

Paolo Macchiarini’s dramatic fall from grace, including criminal charges against him and the retractions of many of his research papers, will be covered in Peacock’s Dr. Death as well as a new Netflix documentary.

How Paolo Macchiarini Lied His Way To The Top

Paolo Macchiarini was born to Italian parents in Switzerland on August 22, 1958. But the rest of his personal and professional biography should be taken with a large grain of salt.

Macchiarini claimed that he had a difficult childhood growing up in Basel and often felt like an outsider. While studying medicine at the University of Pisa, Macchiarini purportedly had a formative experience when his father fell ill and local doctors could find nothing wrong with him. Shortly thereafter, his dad died.

In Macchiarini’s telling, he then left Italy to avoid a system that only rewarded those with the right connections. He claimed that he went on to study or work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Paris—Sud, and Hannover Medical School. But Macchiarini would soon exaggerate his experience. He said, for example, that he earned a master’s degree in biostatistics in Alabama. However, the university denies this. They say he merely completed a six-month non-surgical fellowship in hematology and oncology.

By 2008, Paolo Macchiarini was working in Spain. And it was there that he suddenly captured the world’s attention.

In June, Macchiarini performed a revolutionary surgery on a 30-year-old mother named Claudia Castillo. Castillo had damage to her airways caused by tuberculosis that caused severe shortness of breath. So Macchiarini took a donor trachea, covered it with stem cells from Castillo’s bone marrow, and effectively gave her a new windpipe.

Paolo Macchiarini During An Operation

TT News Agency / Alamy Stock PhotoPaolo Macchiarini implanting an artificial trachea into a patient. Many recipients of the surgeon’s experimental tracheas later died.

“We are terribly excited by these results,” Macchiarini said at the time, according to The New York Times. “Just four days after transplantation the graft was almost indistinguishable from adjacent normal bronchi.”

He wasn’t the only one who was excited. Word of the surgery quickly spread, and not only was Macchiarini heralded as the next new thing in medicine, but patients lined up to get transplants like Castillo had. In all, The New York Times reports that 20 people in Russia, Spain, Britain, the U.S., and Sweden would receive “tracheal regeneration procedures” performed by Macchiarini.

Paolo Macchiarini’s method seemed like a miracle, and his professional reputation soared. By 2011, he was working in Sweden at the prestigious Karolinska Institute, where he modified his technique by using a plastic windpipe instead of a donor’s.

But in less than a decade, nearly everything about the doctor’s personal and professional life was revealed to be a lie.

The “Hero” Surgeon Is Exposed As A Fraud

Paolo Macchiarini’s reputation received a double blow in 2016. The first came from a Vanity Fair article that laid out the incredible lies the doctor had told during his relationship with NBC producer Benita Alexander.

Alexander and Macchiarini had met during the filming of Meredith Vieira’s documentary on the surgeon and his apparent medical miracles, A Leap of Faith (2014). Vieira had learned about Macchiarini in 2012, and during the making of the subsequent documentary, her producer Alexander and her subject Macchiarini fell in love. By Christmas 2013, they were engaged.

Paolo Macchiarini And Benita Alexander

Benita AlexanderPaolo Macchiarini and Benita Alexander in 2014.

Paolo Macchiarini was well known around the world at that point, and he promised Alexander a star-studded wedding. He told her that he was Pope Francis’ “personal doctor” and that not only had the pope suggested they have the wedding at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, but he’d even offered to officiate.

Indeed, when the couple’s wedding invitations arrived, Vanity Fair reports that they included potential guests like “the Obamas, the Clintons, the Putins, the Sarkozys, Andrea Bocelli, Kofi Annan, Russell Crowe, Elton John, John Legend, Kenny Rogers, Meredith Vieira, and His Holiness Pope Francis.”

But as Alexander prepared to move from New York to Europe to be with Macchiarini, she got an unsettling email from a friend. It clearly showed that the pope would be in South America at the same time he was supposed to be officiating her wedding. From there, with the help of a private investigator, Alexander found that almost everything Macchiarini had told her about the wedding was a lie. He didn’t even know the pope — and he was still married to his wife of 30 years.

Weeks after Vanity Fair exposed Macchiarini’s romantic fraud, a three-part exposé of the surgeon’s medical career aired on Swedish television. It showed that his “miraculous” artificial windpipes were actually doing more harm than good. Almost all of the 20 people who received an experimental trachea from Macchiarini had died. And many suffered horrible, drawn-out deaths.

According to The Guardian, one expert even remarked: “If I had the option of a synthetic trachea or a firing squad, I’d choose the last option because it would be the least painful form of execution.”

Paolo Macchiarini’s Dramatic Fall From Grace

Since he was exposed as a fraud, Paolo Macchiarini has faced criminal charges. In June 2022, he was convicted of gross assault for implanting his artificial tracheas into three patients who later died. Macchiarini was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Doctor Death Paolo Macchiarini

X/@TheHeraldDiaryDr. Paolo Macchiarini holding up two of his synthetic windpipes.

Questions about the miracle surgeon still linger, which will be explored in Peacock’s Dr. Death and a new Netflix documentary. But it ultimately seems that Paolo Macchiarini was a con artist who scammed both his patients and people close to him.

“We’re taught from an early age that when something is too good to be true, it’s not true,” a psychopathy expert told Vanity Fair. “And yet we ignore the signals… Macchiarini is the extreme form of a con man. He’s clearly bright and has accomplishments, but he can’t contain himself. There’s a void in his personality that he seems to want to fill by conning more and more people.”

After reading about Paolo Macchiarini’s dramatic rise and fall, learn the story of “Doctor Death” Christopher Duntsch. Then, discover the story of serial killer Dr. Harold Shipman.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Paolo Macchiarini, The Celebrity Surgeon Who Pioneered Stem Cell Medicine — Then Became Known As ‘Dr. Death’.", December 11, 2023, Accessed June 12, 2024.