The scientist who urged us to never surrender

17 Nov 2015

Paolo Bianco, scientist and defender of the anti-Stamina movement, passed away Saturday at the age of sixty. Here are the memories of colleague, friend and senator for life, Elena Cattaneo.

“We shall never surrender.” I often heard Paolo say these famous words first spoken by Churchill. He would cite them when our conversations ended up remembering the lessons of the courageous men of the past and the vision of those who made History. He would cite them when our discussions shifted to the role science should have (but does not have enough) in our society. 

During the Stamina episode, when we were few and isolated in fighting to shed light on the actions of some parts of the media, courts and politicians, which had declared the “Stamina discovery” as a “cure”, when it was in reality a tragic fraud, Paolo was heavily attacked for his public declarations. His University and his colleagues were inundated with emails requesting his dismissal. Paolo, a devoted and attentive physician, researcher of world fame, who dedicated his studies to complex diseases and to mesenchymal and skeletal stem cells, could not comprehend how our society could so violently deny knowledge, abandoning sick people and children to dangerous charlatans. We worked to reverse the absurd Stamina case every day, for two whole years, together with another renowned stem cell expert, Michele De Luca.

I will never forget the intensity of those days together - the actions, thoughts, writings, incessant research, both profound and intelligent, with NAS (the Italian Health police) and AIFA (the Italian Regulatory Agency on Drugs). While remembering those moments a few days ago, he told me for the first time: “I feel proud of what has been done and the results achieved”. But they had been two devastating years. I fear that he stopped taking care of his health the way he should have. He was a free spirit. “We shall never surrender”. And even when he didn’t pronounce those words, it was surprisingly clear how this conviction guided his actions.

Talking of Paolo today, just a few days after his sudden death, takes my breath away. It is difficult to express my thoughts in words, as I fear they may not do justice to his character. He had simply boundless knowledge, and not solely in science. Sometimes, while discussing a scientific discovery, he would begin to enact, in an absolutely relevant and natural fashion, passages of Hamlet, in English, and I was certain that he could have continued for the entire play. Sharing and arguing his thoughts and his knowledge was his way to respect people, science and the world. 

He had simply boundless knowledge, and not solely in science...Sharing and arguing his thoughts and his knowledge was his way to respect people, science and the world. 

He was a lover of science and medicine. He viewed basic science as the essential and indispensible fulcrum of medicine. The fabricated ideas and the journalistic hysteria about the healing powers of stem cell transplants saddened him, as he knew of his responsibility as a doctor towards the ill. He repeatedly intervened, also at an international level, against the frenzy of the “translation” of stem cells, especially mesenchymal cells, employed for no reasons and tested in humans ahead of time and before any proof of their efficacy. He wrote in Nature, in June 2014: this “can only bring ineffective products to market, degrade medicine and impoverish all except, perhaps, the fortunate sellers”. He always courageously contested superficial publications, and was always against what could have damaged science or misrepresented its findings. “The sick need help”, he said, “not hope”.  

Developing new scientific concepts for him was as natural as breathing. It was impossible for him to limit his understandings to a superficial assessment of data, hypotheses or words and their meanings. He could still be amazed by a new discovery, together with his young and older collaborators, who he also considered his family.

My mind is full of memories of him and of our endless discussions. Sometimes the latter were exhausting, but more often regenerating – and always intelligent, passionate and responsible. 

Thank you Paolo, for your generous and intense life. Thank you for all your scientific concepts for which you have fought for and that have revealed themselves to be right. Thanks for never renouncing reason and truth. Especially in our country. Even when it would have been easier or convenient to do so.

The legacy he leaves us is immense and magnificent. It speaks of honesty, competence, professional integrity, civic duties, and of freedom of and within scientific research. Until these are realized with rigor, the testimony and memory of Paolo Bianco will be passed from mind to mind, in a marathon much longer and more fascinating than the mere existence of each and every one of us.

This article was originally published in La Stampa, in Italian.

Image provided with kind permission of the Centre for Bionetworking.

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