Medicine comes a poor second to physics

November 5, 1999

In our focus on Italian research, Paul Bompard reports on new efforts to shake up an unequal and underfunded system. Below, he looks at the agonies and the ecstasies of medical researchers

The international Human Genome Project was launched in 1986 by Renato Dulbecco, the American researcher of Italian origin who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1975 for discoveries linking tumour viruses with cell genetics.

Professor Dulbecco returned to Italy in 1990, after working for half a century in the United States and the United Kingdom, to head the Italian section of the project, based in Milan.

Ironically, the father of the human genome project discovered that beyond the initial enthusiasm for the laureate's return to his native land, concrete support for the Milan laboratory was conspicuously lacking.

In 1995, the annual L2 billion (Pounds 660,000) the project had been receiving from the Italian state was cut off, but research continued thanks only to L500 million (Pounds 165,000) from a private sponsor, the Cariplo Bank, plus some small donations.

Professor Dulbecco threatened to leave Italy twice and return to the US, and twice was assured by the research minister at the time that financing would come through.

He said: "We've now started getting a little money, but not much. Obviously we cannot keep up with research in other countries. So we are concentrating on the genes of cancer cells, and we are working with the Italian Cancer Research Institute.

"In a sense, the human genome project as such is completed, and research is now moving on to possible practical results. It is sad that hundreds of billions of lire are spent in physics, often with virtually no results, while there is so little money for medical research. But this is an Italian tradition. The physicists are often politically powerful and they get what they want."

Paolo Vezzoni is the director of the Milan laboratory, and his obvious enthusiasm is tempered by what he also sees as neglect on the part of the authorities.

He said: "The money was stopped in 1995 just as we had completed the mapping and were getting into the sequencing. We cannot compete. The US, where the state competes with private research, and the UK, with the enormous resources of the Wellcome Trust, are way ahead. We are not even keeping up with France and Germany, maybe we are just neck-and-neck with Australia."

The Milan laboratory has to keep going with a very few scientists, like Professor Vezzoni, who are employees of the National Research Council, plus a platoon of interns and students who survive with scholarships.

Professor Vezzoni said: "We do have good scientists in Italy, but even if we could offer them a proper job they would be forced to work in limiting conditions. So many go abroad and never return.

"We are now at the lowest ebb of biotechnological research in Italy. Most of the pharmaceuticals firms that once existed in Italy, and which used to support research, have now been taken over by foreign companies, so they do their research elsewhere."

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