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Peddler of discredited stem-cell treatment up for fraud

Stamina chief Davide Vannoni sent to trial

07 February, 17:16
Peddler of discredited stem-cell treatment up for fraud (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Turin, February 7 - The peddler of a discredited stem-cell treatment that has raised false hopes in hundreds of parents of terminally ill children is to go on trial for alleged fraud.

Davide Vannoni, a former psychology lecturer whose Stamina Foundation was recently stripped of its non-profit status after a study found its treatment was "ignorant of stem-cell biology", was indicted for attempted fraud against the Piedmont Region.

The Stamina affair, which grabbed headlines after desperate parents staged street protests to demand the treatment and forced the government to re-assess it, is the latest in a long line of bogus-therapy cases stretching at least as far back to a 'miracle' cancer cure in the late 1990s. Vannoni has yet to face charges for defrauding the users of his allegedly useless treatment.

Monday's indictment concerned a lesser issue, of funding granted and later withdrawn by the government of Piedmont, the region around Turin. Stamina asked for 500,000 euros worth of funding to develop a stem-cell laboratory, a request prosecutors argue was fraudulent because the efficacy of the treatment has been "completely disproved".

Vannoni, who goes on trial on April 3, denied the charges and said he was "serene". The foundation's website only refers to Vannoni as a "professor", without stating he got a degree in psychology from Udine University in northeastern Italy.

It says the foundation was founded in 2009 to bring together stem-cell researchers from around the world specialized in working with adult bone-marrow stem cells.

News of the indictment came a day after the treatment was berated by the Italian State Pharmaceuticals Agency (AIFA) for being "commercial and pseudoscientific".

"The patients were not competently monitored," AIFA chief Luca Pani told a Senate hearing .

"Parliament needs to distance itself from the business of pseudo-therapies".

The untested form of stem-cell treatment 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 thought it could be a cure for fatal degenerative nerve diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy, while detractors said it was devoid of scientific merit.

A panel of experts appointed by Italy's health ministry said last month it found the therapy seriously lacking in both premise and practice.

Their report cited "serious imperfections and omissions in the Stamina protocol, including conceptual errors and an apparent ignorance of stem-cell biology".

"Some sections of the protocol were copied from Wikipedia".

Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin reiterated Friday: "Not one patient improved with the Stamina treatment".

Italy, like other countries, has a history of terminal patients turning to hucksters, purveyors of purported magic and practitioners of unconventional medicine, most of them outright quacks.

Perhaps the most notorious case of the latter was the late Antonio Di Bella, a retired Sicilian physiologist whose unorthodox cancer treatment caused collective hysteria in Italy for several months during 1997 and 1998. Di Bella, who died at the age of 89 in 2003, claimed that his mixture of drugs and vitamins stimulated the body's self-healing properties without damaging healthy cells. But he provided no supportive experimental evidence, and - despite his claims to have cured thousands of patients with a variety of cancers - never documented his clinical results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Top Italian pharmacologist Silvio Garattini blasted Di Bella's claims out of the water, describing the regimen as a "totally irrational association of drugs supported by absolutely no scientific evidence or data whatsoever".

The treatment retreated from the spotlight but was still being advertised by Di Bella followers as late as 2008, prompting the American Cancer Society to issue a warning on its website, saying: "Available scientific evidence does not support claims that Di Bella therapy is effective in treating cancer. "It can cause serious and harmful side effects".