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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.

Figure 1: Types of stem cells, their origin, and kinds of cells they can generate.

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

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  • Sara 02/04/2013 at 7:22 am

    Hi there, my name is Sara and I’d like to share my ideas on your post as an Italian scientist.
    You should have followed what happened on social media and media in general when the minister decided to stop the Stamina treatment for this little girl… There has been a sort of “revolution” and lots of people and TV programs were fighting for this girl’s right to be cured with stem cells. They didn’t know what they were talking about but everybody was (and is still) saying that she had to continue the treatment… the main problem is that people think there is actually a valid cure based on stem cells (like Di Bella method to treat cancer…) but scientists and doctors don’t want to share it with the public… we don’t know why… they probably assume because of pharma companies’ profit, that otherwise would decrease because they would sell less drugs…!!!

    I know it seems Sci-Phy to non-Italians, I’m astonished too when I read the comments of my friends on their FB’s walls. I honestly think it’s a shame that TV and media in general can move people’s souls and minds like that. That scares me a lot, because it means they have so much power to influence our thoughts that we don’t even care to understand the matter and have a critical point of view, trying to discern what is right from what is wrong!

    It has been the same when we had to vote for IVF few years ago and people followed what the pope or the TV said… and most of them went to the seaside (it was summer) instead of voting!

    I’m sorry to say that but I really do think that people shouldn’t take a decision on this technical important issues because they don’t really know what we’re talking about!!! We’re not ready for this yet! According to me, we should start to improve scientific education in schools and develop a new solid consciousness on these matters, even through a good and reliable science communication, that unfortunately today doesn’t exist yet! Ignorance is the worst plague of society, but it’s easier to keep citizens quiet and happy if they don’t understand what it’s really going on in their own country: the “panem et circenses” rule works perfectly nowadays too!!!

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