Italy in uproar over doctor's pounds 200-a-day cancer 'cure'

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For The past 30 years, Professor Luigi Di Bella has been known in Italy as the doctor of last resort. Cancer patients despairing of traditional treatment have been coming to his surgery in Modena and trying out a bizarre cocktail of drugs that he has pioneered. Scores of them swear by the Di Bella method, and say it has saved their lives.

But celebrity does not seem to be enough to satisfy the good doctor, even at the venerable age of 85. He wants recognition, and in recent days has been fighting tooth and nail against a sceptical government and scientific community to get it. Parliament has been debating the issue as a matter of national urgency, scientific commissions have been meeting in extraordinary session, and lawyers representing Professor Di Bella and Rosy Bindi, the health minister, have been drawing up libel writs in reaction to each other's incendiary remarks.

The trigger for this extraordinary Christmas rush of emotion was a decision by a government prefect in the southern city of Lecce, who was approached by the mother of a two-year-old boy dying of a brain tumour. The boy had been taking Professor Di Bella's cocktail of somatostatin and melatonin - both naturally occurring hormones - but because of their withering cost his parents could not afford to pursue the treatment. The prefect decided the state had a duty to keep the boy alive if at all possible and ordered the government to foot the medical bill.

There was uproar. The nation's chief pharmacist called Professor Di Bella a charlatan who preyed on desperate people without a scrap of scientific evidence to back him up. The highest medical authority in the land passed a resolution asking the health minister to stop the professor administering his treatment.

Professor Di Bella accused the establishment of getting in his way for political and financial reasons, arguing that cancer was big business for researchers and medical suppliers, all of whom stood to lose out if he was proved right. "They have poured scorn on 30 years of my work, saying that my methods are not recognised in the scientific literature. But who is behind that literature?" he asked.

The professor is convinced the establishment is out to get him. When melatonin became the in drug in the US a couple of years ago, the Italian government passed a decree temporarily banning doctors from prescribing it. The price of somatostatin, meanwhile, has risen stratospherically and now costs five or six times as much as in Greece or Germany.

Money is the nub of the present debate. The 3mg of somatostatin the professor prescribes daily cost around pounds 200 - a huge burden for the patient, but an equally huge burden for the state to take on, since an estimated 30,000 people are following the Di Bella method (most obtaining their drugs by mail order from a pharmacy in Bavaria).

The professor's champions say the money is worth spending, since the drugs do no demonstrable harm and might save thousands of lives. His detractors fear the country is being led astray by unscientific practices that risk taking precious resources away from more deserving causes.

Ms Bindi says she is willing to consider experimental use of the professor's drugs under the state medical system but only if he produces documentary evidence of 100 successful cases. He has refused to do so, saying she is the inheritor of a corrupt, suspect institution of state who has no right to order him to do anything. Such sentiments have not exactly filled Ms Bindi with seasonal goodwill, and her lawyers are reacting accordingly.

The professor is pinning his hopes on parliament, which has so far produced one vote in his favour (in the Senate) and one against him (in the Chamber of Deputies). Though logic suggests Professor Di Bella should follow established procedure, Italy venerates saints and miracle-workers; the debate looks set to run and run.