Clinics that offer unproven stem-cell treatments often end up playing cat and mouse with health regulators, no matter which country they operate in. In Italy, however, one such treatment now has official sanction. The country’s health minister, Renato Balduzzi, has decreed that a controversial stem-cell treatment can continue in 32 terminally ill patients, mostly children — even though the stem cells involved are not manufactured according to Italy’s legal safety standards. The unexpected decision on 21 March has horrified scientists, who consider the treatment to be dangerous because it has never been rigorously tested. In the opinion of stem-cell researcher Elena Cattaneo of the University of Milan: “It is alchemy”. The decision followed weeks of media pressure to authorize compassionate use of the therapy, which was developed by the Brescia-based Stamina Foundation and has been repeatedly banned in the past six years. Now, patient groups are pushing for the treatment to be available to anyone with an incurable illness. Hundreds protested in Rome on 23 March, including a naked woman with pro-Stamina slogans painted on her skin.
Stamina Foundation president Davide Vannoni, a psychologist at the University of Udine, says that the publicity around the treatment has won him 9,000 new patients. He hopes that further modifications to the law will allow him to expand the therapy. A month ago, an investigatory television programme, The Hyena, reported that children with incurable diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy were being denied supposedly important treatment, and Italian show-business personalities joined the call to relax rules on stem-cell treatment.