On the stage where the so-called “Stamina case” is being performed – a tragedy disguised as a farce – reflectors have not lightened yet the female protagonists, who are still remaining in the shadows. Or maybe there is where the male actors want to keep them: the star, Davide Vannoni; his right-hand man, Marino Andolina; the deus ex machina, Gianfranco Merizzi, president of Medestea, the company holder of the proprietary rights for the so-called “Stamina method”.
Women, however, are important in this story. On the backdrop, stands out the shadow of Elena Schegelskaya, the Ukraine researcher often referred as “the Russian biologist”, met in Kharkov by Davide Vannoni – whilst he was in search of a cure for his facial paralysis – and brought to Turin, together with her colleague Vyacheslav Klymenko, in order to introduce in Italy that method whose results, in the mirror, had appeared to him so satisfying. Under investigation as the professor, she seems to be trying to steer clear from this play.
Still on the front-line, but always avoiding the spotlights, is, on the other side, Erica Molino, the leading biologist of the Stamina Foundation (she prepares the cells for the Brescia Hospital), who took over from the Ukraine once she left and (for unclear reasons yet) flew back to her country.
Erica Molino seems to be the one who modified the original method to the point they thought about patenting it, however forgetting to remove from the patent demand – never accepted, it is important to keep it mind – the pictures of the alleged neurons obtained by the colleague with her own old method, years before she arrived in Italy and started co-working with Vannoni, as I already wrote about it .
The third woman, the one nobody has ever heard about yet, is called Giulia and might demonstrate that the involvement of Camillo Ricordi in this story, or at least his relationship with Medestea, precedes by far his appearance on the stage. Giulia’s surname is Merizzi, exactly as the president of Medestea, the manager who candidly admits the economic interests behind this whole operation. She is most likely his daughter; for sure – at least according to her Linkedin profile – she has been working since 2008 for the very same cosmetic-pharmaceutical company.
In the past, Medestea had been already under investigation by Turin public prosecutor, Raffaele Guariniello - the same one who is today investigating on Stamina - because of an anti-cellulite product (named Cellulase), considered harmful and whose commercialization was stopped. Old stories, it was the second half of the Nineties, when Medestea’s products were sold under the brands of Sant’Angelica and Clinians without really knowing the direction the Turin’s company would have taken in the future.
Once Giulia arrives, with her degree in Chemical and Pharmaceutical Technology, things change a lot. Now it is time to aim much higher, up to those cell therapies that – as stated by the international website of the company – are “by far the project with the highest business potential”, the business of the future. So it is not just about lotions and supplements anymore, but vaccines against AIDS and cancer therapies. Giulia Merizzi herself applies for the patents of two products (oral or nasal spray) for curbing appetite and improving the mood, on line with the traditional Medestea’s battle against cellulite and swollen belly, but also for monoclonal antibodies against HIV, that might open new market opportunities in case Stamina did not work.
The links between Medestea and Stamina are not a mistery, nevertheless, as L’ Espresso suggests, surprises might come from the Swiss twinned company Biogenesis. Connections between Stamina and Camillo Ricordi, Head of the Diabeters Research Institute and Cell Transplant Center in Miami, became clear in the last months.
Giulia Merizzi might be the missing link in this story, the link between Camillo Ricordi and Medestea, at least three years before his offer to validate the Stamina cells’ characteristics in his centre in Miami.
The first element suggesting Ricordi’s interest in Stamina is the confidential email – that we however managed to see – by which the diabetes expert, in the middle of the media storm of spring 2013 and informed (as other colleagues of his were) about the Decree under discussion, writes to Ministry Balduzzi. Ricordi presents Cure Alliance’s aims to loosen up the strict rules in the field of advanced therapies, becomes spokesman of the initiatives carried out in Israel by Arnold Caplan, founder of
Osiris Therapeutics, one of the most important companies worldwide for mesenchymal stem cells and offers his expertise for participating to any commission, any study-group or committee, in case his contribute was to be considered useful (obviously for free).
Few days later the Senate votes a decree, then modified by the Chamber of Deputies - as we had already written then - levelling stem cell treatments to transplants (in line with the position that Ricordi clearly stated in another email) and dispensing them from the much stricter drugs regulation.
Then, in summer, the cards are laid on the table. As Giuseppe Remuzzi wrote on Scienzainrete, during the International Symposium of the Cell Transplant Society held last July in Milan and organized by Ricordi himself, the diabetes expert defends the quality of a protocol which he has obviously managed to see, differently by the other scientists. How did he get access to that extremely confidential document, if not thanks to a privileged relation with Vannoni or with other people within the Stamina Foundation? Then, his offer of analysing the cells in Miami is recent news. But let’s rewind the film for a moment, coming back to another symposium, held in Miami in October 2011. On that occasion, Giulia Merizzi – at the time she had already been working in Medestea for three years – is co-author of three papers with Ricordi and his colleagues Carmen Fotino, Antonello Pileggi, who is Head of Pre-clinical Cell Processing and Translational Models in the Miami Institute, and Luca Inverardi, who - exactly in those years and with Ricordi - was investigating the potentialities of mesenchymal stem cells for treating diabetes.
A long term partnership, then, absolutely licit – of course – but that perhaps deserved a disclosure when Ricordi was indicated as the independent scientist who could have sorted out this delicate situation.
P.S. At the same symposium in Miami, Ricordi invited as speaker also Mauro Ferrari, today Head of the (to be nominated yet) new technical-scientific Commission. For those who think the engineer, Head of the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston, might not be an expert in the subject, I’d like to remind the title of his then-presentation: “Nanotechnology and tissue repair”. There is a strong link, in fact, between nanotechnologies – where Ferrari is one of the most valued experts worldwide – and regenerative medicine, of which stem cells are an instrument: both are extremely innovative therapies, with as much potentialities as risks. If the match is played on the regulation field, then they are both playing on the same side.
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