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Police investigate use of stamina treatment in Brescia

Controversial stem-cell therapy probed by Italian prosecutors

23 December, 16:56
Police investigate use of stamina treatment in Brescia (ANSA) - Turin, December 23 - Prosecutors in the northern city of Brescia said Monday they have ordered an investigation into the use of a controversial stem-cell therapy at a local hospital.

The Brescia Civic Hospital had been applying the so-called Stamina therapy for "compassionate use" but prosecutors on Monday alleged that patients undergoing the treatment have not seen any improvement.

Critics say the stem-cell treatment has been untested and could be dangerous. Last week, some alleged that the treatment could contribute to a fatal neurodegenerative condition commonly known as mad cow disease.

However, supporters of the Stamina treatment convinced Italy's health ministry to announce earlier this month that it will appoint a new panel of experts to assess the treatment.

That announcement came shortly after the Lazio Regional Administrative Court suspended a previous federal panel, upholding an appeal from David Vannoni, president of Italy's Stamina Foundation which supports the stem-cell treatment.

In their order the judges, who have set June 11 for a review of the matter, urged the health ministry to conduct a serious investigation of the Stamina treatment.

The health ministry and the scientific community should give priority to a full investigation "so thorough as to leave no more room for doubt," the judges have said.

Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin echoed that, saying earlier this month that the new committee must act quickly "because I believe that in this matter no one can leave patients and families in doubt".

The regional judges also said that the first committee should have examined the medical records of patients who had been through the Stamina treatment in hospital in Brescia.

The judges noted that records from that hospital do not show any adverse effects experienced by patients there from the Stamina treatment.

The first expert panel that the Italian government appointed had been asked to come up with a trial design for the therapy.

However, it concluded in September that the Stamina treatment has no scientific foundation and that there was no point in doing the wider study, for which the Italian government had allocated three million euros.

The Stamina Foundation challenged that finding before the Lazio regional court, arguing that the composition of the health ministry's commission had been flawed because the experts were not impartial.

It said that some members of the commission had expressed opposition to Stamina treatment before the commission's work even began.

Stamina therapy involves extracting bone marrow stem cells from the patient, turning them into neurons by exposing them to retinoic acid for two hours, and injecting them back into the patient.

Supporters of the therapy say it could be a cure for fatal degenerative nerve diseases while detractors say it is devoid of scientific merit.

The therapy has been a hot topic in the media and in the courts, and protestors have rallied to draw attention to their cause, including a major march in late November in central Rome.

Pope Francis also boosted interest in the issue and gave it a very human face when he met with the family of toddler Noemi Sciaretta and prayed for the little girl.