Pseudo-science meets pseudo-political power: the celebration of nonsense

Creative Commons – Attribution (CC BY 3.0)  Cell designed by Ilsur Aptukov from the Noun Project

Creative Commons – Attribution (CC BY 3.0)
Cell designed by Ilsur Aptukov from the Noun Project

The Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin is probably doing the best she can to handle the controversy of a popular “stem-cell therapy”, invented by the psychologist Davide Vannoni, who gained national notoriety thanks to unwise media hype in Italy.

Vannoni’s therapy has been indicated (by its own inventor) as the remedy for a large variety of untreatable neurodegenerative diseases, from multiple sclerosis to genetic disorders.

A hit-for-all intravenous injection that address the need of the mainstream-medicine forgotten. Here we go.

Last month, a Government appointed committee examined the details of Vannoini’s cure and ruled against it: the promised 3 million euro for the clinical trial vanished from the final decision taken by Lorenzin, labeling the treatment as unsafe and without sufficient evidence for eventual efficacy.

But the therapy gained new hype as an italian court declared “unlawful” the scientists in the commission, at the beginning of December.

Pretty much exhausted by this back-and-forth loop, editors at Nature encouraged Lorenzin to “resolve the ongoing uncertainty”: they wish the details of the trial to be made publicly available, and the commission released from any confidentiality agreement that Vannoni obtained before revealing his secret to the “evil scientists”.

This is a good point: whether Vannoni likes it or not, there is no way a governmental-sponsored trial would even start before registration on a public database. Such procedure is golden standard even for the always-a-bit-nasty big pharma, which Vannoni repeatedly indicates as infiltrated lobby in the EMA and the italian correspondent.

The summary of the method has to be described, and the main outcomes of the trial have to be declared before recruiting the first patient.

The court wants a new, different scientific board to decide over Vannoni’s therapy, particularly calling for more neutral people, possibly from outside Italy.

Lorenzin replies with a soft nod:

We will constitute a new commission, as the court asked.

We will follow this procedure because it is the faster way to give a definitive answer to the patients

But Nature is concerned: venturing in such operation may result dangerous, as “There exist powerful international interests that support […] unproven stem-cell therapies” says the editorial, and the risk of lobbyist infiltration is high.

Will be Lorenzin able to chose wisely? How do we guarantee that another court doesn’t rule against the new committee, one more time?

Regardless, I think she took the best decision. Debunking a judger would be so unpopular, and so conspiracy-friendly, that Vannoni’s supporters might come out stronger then before.

In a country like Italy – where if politicians have not yet been hanged [quite literally] by impoverished citizens it is looking more and more like pure coincidence – room for unpopular decision is tight, and politicians have limited power agains the public opinion. Dislike for the political elite is of such magnitude that even the smallest, totally logic decision against pseudo-science, becomes a jump in the darkness that few politician dare to make.

It remains a fascination to me how a humanist with a therapy-for-nearly-everything has managed to ride so well the public imagination of so many italians. The influence of Vannoni became so wide that his supporters share pictures of ill children on the web, spill their own blood on pictures of politicians that “don’t understand”, walk naked on streets and fake crucifixion in front of the Parliament (all of these things has happened, listed in stupidity order).

credit: www.ilmessagero.it

I guess I have to go along with it. It’s a fact of the world that even intelligent people can believe stupid things, and act accordingly.

I am loosing interest in Vannoni’s therapy as it is becoming less and less about science and more and more a cultural and political celebration of the nonsense, a matter I have tried to avoid for a while, and I have no interest in joining.

I applaud Lorenzin words on this matter (particularly her pro-scientists sentences) and wait for the publication of the method and trial details, wishing for a more powerful political will.

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