“Why should we throw away assisted fertilization embryonic cells that will never be used? Shouldn’t we utilize them for research instead? Discarding them is not only against science, is against logic and common sense too. How would you explain it to ill people? They, especially the most unlucky, know perfectly well that research on embryonic cells will tell us if in the future we will be able to cure diseases with stem cells, in case also adult ones.
Elena Cattaneo wonders about questions like these every day and she talks, discusses, writes, gets passionate about these topics and knows how to translate her beliefs in practical actions. Like, for example, when she appealed to the Regional Administrative Court (the Italian acronym is TAR) and to the State Council against a research grant that first mentioned stem cells without any restrictions and then suddenly excluded the embryonic ones (obviously stabilized lines, bought abroad and allowed in Italy), with none able to provide plausible explanations at the Ministry.
Elena has always been a top researcher, in Boston first and now in Milan, she published on the best journals and fundamentally contributed to understanding genetic causes of terrible rare conditions like Huntington’s diseases (thanks to her studies and researches on cells, people affected by this disease can now hope for a cure).
Elena dedicated her life to research, but she also spent a lot of time explaining science and its rules to lay people and especially to youngsters. She meets them in Milan once a year, the aula magna at her University is crowded (really crowded) with teenagers; topics are science and stem cells, but also ethics, researchers and doctors’ duties and responsibilities toward patients. That hall, once a year, is in streaming with many more schools in Italy. Elena is volcanic, she keeps a bay a thousand teenagers at a time, she enthrals them and she brings them the best scientists. Teenagers ask, provoke and contest. It is a challenge, but is also a wonderful way of putting youngsters in contact with science.
Doing her job well is not enough for Elena, she knows she has to fight every day in defence of science and ethics, for freedom and independence in research and for a merit-based distribution of funds, not a little to everyone and, possibly, a bit more to friends. Therefore, she cannot get tired of talking, writing or contesting any stances based on prejudice or personal advantage. In Italy is unfortunately too common that scientific debate is exploited for political reasons and that many people, for ignorance or religion beliefs, are against science nevertheless.
We fought the last battle together with Paolo Bianco and Michele De Luca. We had to clearly assert that there is no cure for metachromatic leukodystrophy (the "Stamina" method) and that in Brescia for this and other neurological diseases what is being done is outside Medicine’s rules and cannot work. In other words, people affected by these diseases are being deceived. Once again, Elena has been tireless, she advocated for the patients, to protect them from illusions and manipulations. She worked with all of us and showed that “truth will out”. Then the President Napolitano appointed her senator for life: clearly a choice on the side of reason and science. We were quite disheartened seeing judges who dictate doctors to treat patients with untested treatments against any scientific rational.
But just when we were wondering “what kind of country is this?” something unexpected happened, giving us strength to keep going, facing any difficulties, and telling the youngsters that passion and merit are acknowledged also in Italy.
Thank you Mr President.