Last March, Italy’s health minister authorised the use of unproven “stem cell therapy” for “compassionate” treatment of terminally ill patients. Italy will not only allow the unproved treatments to proceed but will also pick up the bill for them. The world’s major scientific journals have expressed their scepticism regarding the therapy and there is a general sense of astonishment and horror within the mainstream scientific community (1, 2).
Italy’s health minister -a former professor of constitutional law- authorised the treatment provided by Stamina Foundation –lead by psychologist Davide Vannoni- after giving way to pressure from patients’ families and show-business personalities.
Stem cells are part of an exciting field of research and they have huge therapeutic potential. However there are many reasons, scientific, economic and moral to question the minister’s decision.
There are many classes of stem cells and some are more stem cells than others (see figure 1). Embryonic stem cells can become any type of cell in the body, while other stem cells can only give rise to a family or a small group within a family of cells. Vannoni claims that they can treat Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and muscle-wasting disorders. He explains that Stamina’s treatment consist of a “cocktail of stem cells” and ”Whatever the disease, one of the types of cell is going to have the right effect”. However, their “cocktail” of stem cells only contains mesenchymal stem cells (see figure 1) and even if we accept it could improve muscle wasting disorders there is no reason whatsoever to assume that it can improve neuronal conditions such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s beyond a placebo effect; mesenchymal stem cells do not become brain cells (3).
In addition to the absence of theoretical foundation for Vannoni’s work there are concrete risks: Recently a woman in California found out that the mesenchymal stem cells that were injected into her face for cosmetic purposes were turning her eyelids into bone blinding her (4); we still do not fully understand, or control, the mechanisms that make stem cells turning into different cells in the body.
Under these circumstances, there is no rational justification for Italy backing the use of unproven treatments, let alone paying for them. Currently these treatments can do very little for most patients. In many cases these funds could probably have the same impact if they were spent in miracle healers and voodoo witches.
Someone may be trying to take advantage of vulnerable people to make money out of them; several scientifically illiterate showbiz personalities with an addiction for the cameras have lobbied for that to happen; an irresponsible and easy-to-push civil servant has approved it. We can only hope that if something bad (or more likely nothing) happens these people will be made accountable for their deeds.
1 – Nature News, by Alison Abbott
2 – Science Magazine, by Edyta Zielinska
3 – Cell Stem Cell vol. 10 p. 709-715
4 – Scientific American, by Ferris Jabr