False hope is no hope

Health Check
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The Independent Culture
PREPARE TO shed a tear for Dr Luigi Di Bella. He, you may remember, is the Italian physiologist with the "miracle cure" for cancer who numbers the Pope among his tens of thousands of supporters. So great, in fact, was the demand for his drug cocktail known as MDB, that the Italian government dropped its opposition to the treatment and agreed to sponsor trials.

Here was Di Bella's chance to prove himself. An international commission led by Professor Gordon McVie, director of the UK Cancer Research Campaign, oversaw nine separate trials around Italy. Initial results from four of them showed that not one of the 136 patients who volunteered for the tests showed any signs of recovery.

It was a bit of a setback for Dr Di Bella, you might have thought. Possibly even a fatal blow for his "gentler, non-toxic and more humane" treatment, offered as an alternative to chemotherapy. But no. Dr Di Bella plans to sue the doctors who conducted the trials, claiming that they mixed the cocktail in the wrong proportions. That he persistently refused to divulge the exact composition of his cure, which is based on the growth hormone somostatin, appears to have temporarily slipped the 86-year-old Di Bella's mind.

On Thursday, a book celebrating Di Bella's life and work is published which claims to reveal the "essence of this extraordinary man and why his cure represents a hope for humanity". There is certainly a book to be written about this extraordinary episode. How did a humble lecturer from the University of Modena, who taught physiology courses to students of natural sciences, biology and pharmacology from after the war until his retirement in 1984, become one of the most sought-after cancer "doctors" in Europe?

Unsurprisingly, this book is not it. It claims that the doctors who investigated the treatment are part of a conspiracy - the simplicity and low cost of this treatment represents a threat to the medical establishment.

Professor McVie begs to differ. He says Dr Di Bella was consulted at great length before the trials and signed a document to say that he agreed with their design. Professor McVie also made a curious discovery. "We went through his case notes and he had treated 3,000 patients, 1,500 of whom didn't have cancer at all. Of the remaining 1,500, four showed evidence of improvement, but they had also had other treatment."

This book plays to the millions of people who want to believe in miracles, and long for the doomy doctors to be proved wrong. Dr Di Bella continues spreading his misguided message and publishers are happy to help him. There is only one thing worse than spreading false hope - and that is doing it again and again.

`Di Bella - The Man, The Cure, a Hope for All', by Vincenzo Brancatisano: Quartet Books, pounds 7