The Doctor Is In: His Cancer 'Cure' Has Italy All Agog

Media Swarm, Pilgrims Flock But There's a Problem -- No Scientific Evidence

04/21/98 The Wall Street Journal

MODENA, Italy -- A couple of years ago, Luigi Di Bella was struck by a brick while riding his bike, leaving his hearing impaired and his head permanently cocked to one side. No one knows for sure whether the brick was thrown or who might have tossed it, but Dr. Di Bella has his suspicions: "My enemies are the chemotherapy industry and the Health Ministry."

A crackpot? Some say so. But ever since word spread last December that the cantankerous 85-year-old physician had found a cure for cancer -- a cocktail of drugs that supposedly stops tumor growth, allowing people to avoid harsh chemotherapy -- he has been embroiled in a huge national controversy. In the process, he has become a national folk hero, treated with the adulation Italians usually reserve for movie stars and soccer players.

From Sicily off the toe of the Italian boot to the Alps in the north, the Di Bella craze is sweeping the country. Dr. Di Bella is a hot item on national television talk shows and the front pages of major magazines and newspapers. His face appears on T-shirts and in bookstore windows, where two competing biographies of him are on display. One, "Di Bella: The Man, the Cure, a Hope for All," is No. 7 on Italy's best-known bestseller list. A third book is due out next week. Politicians have debated his ideas in Parliament.

"This is a Catholic country, a country that believes in miracles," says Sandro Roventi, a sociologist at Milan's Bocconi University. "Half the country was moved when a Madonna [statue] allegedly cried tears of blood -- and in this case we're talking about a cure for cancer."

There's a problem, however: Dr. Di Bella can't back up his claims with scientifically documented evidence; he doesn't keep any.

But never mind. As excitement spread earlier this year, the Italian government acceded to public pressure for the first official trials of the Di Bella method, which began last month and involve 600 patients. In several Italian hospitals, sick people have been lobbying to be included. Some patients and their families have gone to court and obtained judicial orders instructing the national health system to distribute drugs prescribed by Dr. Di Bella.

Other would-be patients are making pilgrimages to his Modena home, where a paper banner taped to the gate reads: "Thank you, Prof. Di Bella, for giving me back my life."

A modest man who resists media attention, he doesn't greet all of the pilgrims. But recently he has agreed to pose for photos with national Health Minister Rosy Bindi, who on one occasion traveled five hours by car from Rome to pay her respects. Italy has divided itself into pro-Di Bellans and anti-Di Bellans. One weekly magazine called him "a witch doctor." Another countered that he was the victim of "a witch hunt."

The professor's us-vs.-them approach has touched a chord in this country, where many people resent a government health system known for long lines and shortages of hospital beds. Demand for the pharmaceuticals Dr. Di Bella prescribes has increased so much that they essentially have disappeared from the market. One patient, Olimpio Lunghi, the former mayor of a small town near Assisi, has founded a political party, Associazione del Cancro, to promote Dr. Di Bella's approach. Another patient, Modena engineer Carlo Ponsele, says that six months of anguishing chemotherapy didn't seem to affect his bone cancer, but since switching to the Di Bella cocktail, he skis and hikes in the mountains -- pain-free for the first time in nearly two years.

But some worry that the Di Bella frenzy could result in the abandonment of scientific methods for what might be an illusion. At the same time as it approved the clinical trials, Parliament passed a new law banning the prescription of drugs for unapproved uses, which is basically what Dr. Di Bella has been doing for years. In response, Di Bella supporters held protest marches in nine cities over the weekend and a sit-in in Rome, where about 50 patients and their relatives chained themselves to a metal barrier in front of the prime minister's office.

"Patients are leaving chemotherapy to turn to something totally untested," says Daniela Minerva, a skeptic who has become an authority on Dr. Di Bella through her reporting for the news magazine L'Espresso. "If this were a therapy that had been through an ordinary course of scientific trials, it would be just another cure. It's not -- and it has become `The Cure.'" Dr. Di Bella became an overnight hero when a nationally broadcast TV talk show devoted an evening last December to his treatment, which involves a combination of melatonin, somatostatin, retinoids and bromocriptine. "My method is based on reducing the growth rate of cancer, not killing cancer cells," he says in an interview.

Not a cancer specialist by training, Dr. Di Bella spent most of his career as a physiology professor at the University of Modena; he retired in 1977. He began experimenting in the 1960s with melatonin, a hormone released by the pineal gland, and says he had great early success in treating leukemia. He claims to have treated 40,000 patients over the last 25 years or so. He believes that about half survived at least five years -- the time period mainstream medicine uses to judge success against cancer. But he hasn't kept the records to prove it, saying that he relies on his own observations and intuition instead of statistics. "The same cancer reacts differently from person to person," he says. "I think percentages have no meaning."

Melatonin has long been the subject of conventional cancer research, but traditional doctors remain unmoved by the testimony of the handful of Di Bella patients who have been willing to go public with their stories. "We've asked to see his data," says David Blask, a doctor at the Bassett Research Institute in Cooperstown, N.Y., who researches melatonin's effect on breast and liver cancer. "But he's never been forthcoming. If he had well-documented data showing effects on patients over 20 years, then there might be an argument for the [Italian] government to run clinical trials. But doing it based on his own word of mouth -- it's pretty wild."

Preliminary results of the clinical trials are expected to be announced in June.

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