The Occasional Human Sacrifice: Medical Experimentation and the Price of Saying No by Carl Elliott - review by Jack Goulder

Jack Goulder

Through a Microscope, Darkly

The Occasional Human Sacrifice: Medical Experimentation and the Price of Saying No


W W Norton 369pp £23.99

In 2008, Dr Paolo Macchiarini, a charismatic Swiss-Italian surgeon, began to perform daring transplants using synthetic tracheas made of plastic and seeded with the patients’ stem cells. It sounded like science fiction, but the results were compelling and were published widely in prestigious medical journals. Macchiarini was elected soon after to head a research team at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the renowned medical institution that awards the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Then his colleagues began to notice that patients were dying from surgical complications long after Macchiarini had held them up as evidence of the procedure’s success. It transpired that the plastic tracheas were defective and that he had never gained proper consent to use them.

In Carl Elliott’s account of this scandal, the focus is on the experiences of the doctors who tried to expose Macchiarini. Far from being thanked, they faced immediate hostility. They were told they had violated patient confidentiality and were threatened with dismissal. It was only after a documentary publicly exposed him that Macchiarini was forced to resign, along with most of the Karolinska Institute’s leadership. He was later prosecuted for manslaughter.

A bioethicist and writer, Elliott has long been a critic of vested interests in medical research. The Occasional Human Sacrifice looks at some of the most infamous research scandals of the last hundred years from the perspectives of the whistle-blowers who exposed them, some of whom he has interviewed. Elliott

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