The University of Liverpool in UK is about to sack 47 biomedical scientists, unions and students are protesting, but apparently in vain. According to my information, the senior official tasked with evaluating the academic employees and drawing up the redundancy list for the mass-sackings is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Impact Anthony Hollander, professor of stem cell biology. Hollander arrived at this high-ranking position at Liverpool thanks to his most cited paper:
Paolo Macchiarini, Philipp Jungebluth, Tetsuhiko Go, M Adelaide Asnaghi, Louisa E Rees, Tristan A Cogan, Amanda Dodson, Jaume Martorell, Silvia Bellini, Pier Paolo Parnigotto, Sally C Dickinson, Anthony P Hollander, Sara Mantero, Maria Teresa Conconi, Martin A Birchall Clinical transplantation of a tissue-engineered airway The Lancet (2008) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61598-6
I hope you recognised the names. This was the first ever artificial trachea transplant by Paolo Macchiarini, done in 2008 together with his student (and right-hand man till the very end) Philipp Jungebluth, and his British collaborators (back then at the University of Bristol) Martin Birchall and, indeed Anthony Hollander (read details here). The latter’s contribution was his proprietary technology which claimed to somehow create cartilage from the patient’s bone marrow. The recellularisation work with patient’s own cells on the decellularised tracheal graft from a dead donor was done by Jungebluth in Bristol, supervised by Birchall and Hollander, and according to all evidence, in Birchall’s veterinary research lab where pig carcasses were processed. Not just without a regulatory approval, but behind the back and against specific orders from the Human Tissue Authority.
Blue Peter and the trachea transplant of 2008
After that initial operation in 2008, which made news worldwide, Macchiarini and Birchall continued transplanting artificial tracheas, first decellurarised, then plastic, first together, then separately, which left around 20 people dead (see list here). The clinical research was funded by UK national agencies and even the EU Commission. Based on the alleged success story from 2008, other regmed enthusiasts followed Macchiarini’s and Birchall’s example, in Sweden, Germany and in Russia, while Birchall himself, who became UCL professor thanks to the 2008 achievement, is still very much keen to continue. Macchiarini, as you might recall, was sacked first in Sweden, then in Russia (twice!), while the Swedish prosecutor raised aggravated assault charges against him last year. The Italian surgeon, who lives in a villa in Barcelona and has medical licences to practice in several European counties, is probably still operating patients, but not likely with trachea transplants and certainly not where one can see or find him.
There were just 3 survivors of all these trachea transplants, only one of whom, a child at that time, is thought to still carry such a (decellularised) tracheal graft (at least according to Birchall). Hollander used the alleged success from 2008 to boost his academic career while also trying to get rich: he moved from Bristol to the highly salaried leadership post in Liverpool and also set up a business, Azelon, where he markets that cartilage regeneration technology as “living bandage” therapy for damaged knee joints.
The patient from 2008 was a young woman in Barcelona, Spain, Claudia Castillo (her story here). She was the first living organism ever to receive such an artificial trachea graft, because the team never did any preclinical airway transplants on animals. Claudia is still alive, not thanks but despite the near-lethal experiment Macchiarini, Birchall and Hollander performed on her. As luck went, it was her left bronchus and not the main trachea which was replaced. She could still breathe with the other lung, despite the failed graft. Those transplant patients who came after her and got the main trachea replaced, are dead. Claudia refuses to talk to media, yet her personal acquaintance and another victim of Macchiarini’s told her story on my site.
Claudia’s graft failed right away, after merely 3 weeks, and the authors knew it perfectly well before publishing their fake success story in The Lancet. The patient’s life was eventually saved by the Barcelona doctors when the graft was removed together with her left lung a couple of years ago. The Lancet paper remains online, festering as a toxic pile of fraud, the hospital in Barcelona wrote to the journal editor correcting the fraudulent claims but the editor-in-chief Richard Horton still doesn’t care. Thing is, the paper still gathers citations, even today, also Hollander himself insists the trachea transplant was a success.
BBC celebrated Hollander’s role in the operation in 2009, with an interesting reference to a popular British children TV programme, The Blue Peter:
“It had been a heck of a year for Professor Anthony Hollander. In 2008, after 20 years of research into helping arthritis sufferers he unexpectedly found himself being asked to urgently adapt his skills to help save the life of a woman in Spain.
The groundbreaking treatment, by a team of scientists and surgeons, gave the woman a new windpipe using her own stem cells. He had helped save a dying woman and the successful operation made headlines around the world. It was, by any measure, a career high.
After it was all over Mr Hollander got to thinking, and suddenly made a connection. In 1973, a nine-year-old Anthony Hollander had written to Blue Peter to tell them he had a “strange” belief that he knew how to “make people or animals alive”.
The letter, which by his own admission today was “eccentric”, went on to ask the programme to help him acquire the necessary materials to carry out these life-saving tasks.
The shopping list included a “model of a heart split in half” and “tools for cutting people open”.“
Tony “Blue Peter” Hollander received a Gold Badge from the children’s TV programme, even a book about his visionary letter to Blue Peter was published. He became England’s role model of a child prodigy who grew up to save a woman’s live with his scientific genius. Now he is tasked with sacking 47 scientists at his university.
Mountain of lies
One of the worst lies Hollander, Macchiarini and Birchall kept telling into every microphone and camera was that Claudia was dying. The idea being, she had nothing to lose, hence the hurried experiment which saved her life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Antoni Castells, director of the Barcelona Hospital, explained:
“There is no mention to any life-threatening risk derived from patient’s disease neither in Dr. Macchiarini’s request nor in the informed consent form signed by the patient giving her permission to perform the airway transplant procedure.”
Claudia’s condition was not even life-threatening, there were various standard therapy options (read this book by Pierre Delaere), but Macchiarini denied her those and coerced her to agree because he and his partners urgently needed a human guinea pig.
Hollander himself openly admitted in 2010 that no preclinical testing was done, but argued that was cool because he and his mates were saving a life:
“It was all down to Claudia Castillo. Her bronchus was severely damaged after having tuberculosis, endangering her life. Paolo Macchiarini, her surgeon, contacted us. He wanted to combine a number of scientific techniques, including mine, to grow a new tracheal segment for her. At first I was sceptical. Regulatory procedures usually mean it takes years for things to happen—although because Claudia’s life was in danger this burden would be reduced. Also, the techniques hadn’t been used together before. I decided that with some educated guesses it could work, however, so I agreed.”
We don’t even know if Claudia really was the first trachea replacement recipient, because the graft she received was the second one they made.
We can deduce that because both Jungebluth in his MD thesis and Macchiarini in a seminar talk say the donor trachea was harvested in November 2007. Yet Birchall blabbed somewhere that Claudia’s graft was actually collected in March 2008. Then, Jungebluth’s MD thesis and a thesis by Birchall’s PhD student speaks of a 100 day decellurisation process (~14 weeks) needed for the first graft. But The Lancet 2008 paper speaks of merely 6 week decellularisation process, also Macchiarini mentioned at a 2008 meeting just before the operation that it took “approximately 1.5 months”. He also spoke of using nasal septum cartilage for regeneration, while at that time in Bristol Hollander was working on producing what he called a cartilage from Claudia’s bone marrow. There are other clues which suggest that what Claudia received was already the second tracheal graft the team prepared. What happened with the first one? The Barcelona hospital denies that there was another trachea transplant patient before Claudia, but they also are completely clueless about other patients Macchiarini subjected to trachea transplants after Claudia, despite various records and even a witness testimony.
Hollander very likely knows the truth, but he prefers to keep it to himself. In 2013, when corpses of trachea transplant victims were piling up in Macchiarini’s wake, there was no ethical way to pretend ignorant. Yet Hollander gave a talk, where he celebrated his success story of Claudia’s trachea. At 26:11 he says:
“It was a risk for us. Not a risk for the patient because she was probably going to die anyway”.
That was obviously a lie. At 31:40, the insidious misinformation continued. Hollander says the scaffold was grown with Claudia’s cells for 48h, but it was actually grown for 96h (4 days). The Lancet paper clearly states 4 days, the related Asnaghi et al 2009 paper (also coauthored by Hollander and Macchiarini) says 4 days. Why is Hollander claiming something different then? Because, as I discovered, that trachea was recellularised with Claudia’s cells in Bristol illegally, in a veterinary lab. Hollander was professor in Bristol back then, a university press release from 2009 celebrates his “lifesaving operation” with trachea transplant.
Breaking British laws and regulations is obviously not something a UK scientist of Hollander’s calibre would want to be guilty of. But why 2 days recellularisation claim instead of 4 days? Because the trachea was flown from Bristol to Barcelona on 10 June 2008 and implanted into Claudia 2 days later. Hollander wants you to believe that he merely sent cells to Spain, not a final trachea, and Macchiarini did all the work there. Hollander started to spread that fiction already in 2010, in a BMJ interview. There never was any human trachea in the pig lab in Bristol, perish the thought.
In fact, the scare the Bristol trachea transplanters Birchall and Hollander had with the UK authorities led to the urgent change of tactics. From then on, Macchiarini started to seed the bone marrow cells directly into the open patient during the transplant operation, while declaring the human body to be the best bioreactor to turn them into cartilage. Birchall remained his friend and partner for some time until they had a fight over money. Hollander’s cartilage growth services were not needed anyway, not by Macchiarini, not by Birchall, who eventually both developed their own bioreactor thingies. Not that it ever helped, the patients all died with or without bioreactor.
But Hollander needed Claudia’s trachea miracle to sell his stem cell therapies for knee joints (conveniently, nobody ever died from a failed knee joint therapy, much unlike with tracheas!). Even in July 2016, at a parliamentary committee, Hollander, who introduced himself as Azelon owner, kept claiming that Claudia’s trachea transplant was a resounding success and that the urgency to bypass regulatory red tapes was justified because the patient was dying:
“It was not research. We did not have a grant to create Claudia’s trachea. She was a patient who the clinicians judged was dying. I am not a clinician, but that was their view. […] Under ATMP, the kind of get-out clauses we had on various aspects to create that so quickly would not have happened, even on the basis of saving the patient’s life. We can argue whether it was right or wrong. We were allowed to do it then, but I do not think it could happen now.“
Actually, they were not allowed to do that thing in the Bristol pig lab, but they were forgiven because Claudia survived nevertheless and because the operation turned on a gigantic money shower for all researchers involved. The only thing Hollander learned from that affair is that laws and regulations are a bother which prevents business-minded geniuses like himself from designing organ replacement in a veterinary lab without any preclinical tests.
That 2008 Lancet paper which made Hollander’s career is not just a pile of fraudulent lies. It literally killed and continues to do so. Even a former collaborator, the paediatric thoracic surgeon Martin Elliott blames these lies for the death of a child whose trachea transplant he performed in 2012 together with Birchall and other UCL colleagues. Elliot said in a seminar (at 17:40):
“So when we needed to replace a trachea we went to what at the time seemed to be the procedure of choice which was a stem cell-supported graft which had been used for Claudia Castillo in Barcelona. And it seems that the person who was proposing that [Macchiarini] was basically publishing data which were unsustainable and went on to do the same in secondary trials using the synthetic trachea. We’ve all been very damaged by that. I feel quite strongly about it.”
The Lancet paper remains standing obviously because its British authors Birchall and Hollander are against a retraction (the publisher doesn’t care about Macchiarini or his minions like Jungebluth anymore). A retraction would be also very bad for Hollander’s and UCL’s regenerative medicine businesses.
Sacking the low performers
And now Tony the Blue Peter, the greedy dishonest phony, is Chair of the Research and Impact committee in Liverpool deciding which scientists perform and which don’t, so they can be sacked.
In January 2021, academic staff on Teaching & Research contracts in the Faculty of Health and Life Science at the University of Liverpool received unexpected news that 47 staff members had been targeted for compulsory redundancy by May 2021. The criteria for selection were quite nebulous, namely having a field-weighted citation index (FWCI) lower than 2 and/or grant income below an acceptable amount (but no specifics were given). This citation-metrics approach is weird because the University of Liverpool is signatory to DORA Assessment.
The FWCI however is known to be a very problematic metric, and probably half of the people in the faculty would have a FWCI below 2. That would allow Hollander to sack any one of them, randomly. Including himself, some say his own FWCI score is below 2, certainly if that fraudulent and murderous Lancet 2008 paper were to be retracted.
The students and unions are organising protests. They have no clue how callous the plans for mass-dismissal really are, given that Hollander, of all people, is in charge.
It may be University of Liverpool needs to sack people to save money. I suggest starting with Hollander.
If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). You won’t read this information anywhere else.