On the fourth floor of the National Institute of Molecular Genetics, a stone’s throw from the University of Milan, Elena Cattaneo Enjoy a unique view. On the one hand, the famous Panorama of Milan, with the majesty of the Duomo and the insolence of Torre Velasca, and on the other, the unknown of the infinitely small, cells, molecules and DNA that the scientist and her team tirelessly study to find a cure Huntington’s disease.
For more than thirty years, Elena Cattaneo, who was nominated for life by the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano, has dedicated her research to this rare disease. For her it was love at first sight on American soil, when in Boston she listened to a lecture given by Nancy Wexler, the heroine of Huntington’s studies. “I was fascinated by everything about Nancy,” he recalls, “thanks to her for the first time that research and study teach us to pursue goals that are important to many people.”
Since then, the researcher has never stopped: she has published in important international journals, won prizes, coordinated European projects, and combined her commitment as a scholar with that of a publisher. In 2005, he supported a referendum campaign to repeal some articles of Law 40 on Medically Assisted Reproduction, which prevented scientists from studying unused embryonic stem cells, which are instead considered so valuable for research in neurological diseases, just like Huntington’s. Cattaneo was too One of the first scientists to condemn the Stamina method And recently, a Facing the recognition of bio-agriculture. The champion of the scientific method in an age when the facts of science often conflict with opinions.
Senator Cattaneo, what does it mean to dedicate a large part of your life to the study of a disease?
“It is a daily challenge that leads to many paths. Sometimes parallel, other times opposite. No path can be ruled out a priori. Devoting oneself to the study of disease means accepting all of this also for patients and their families.”
She searches in a Milan laboratory for a cure for Huntington’s disease. The most important results obtained?
“We found that The gene that causes the disease is very old, which first appeared about a billion years ago. We wondered why evolution hadn’t eliminated it, since it could be dangerous to humans when it acquires this mutation. After seven years of research, we discovered that in the unchanged version, this gene appears to have important functions for the development of our brains.”
What do you think when you finish studying cells and raise your eyes to everyday reality?
“There is still a lot to discover. This is what fascinates me most about science: Possibility to study and share the unknown. But for every new friend, there are kilograms of evidence to be collected, made public and verified.”
What was not known, the coronavirus, has scared us in recent years. We witnessed the gathering of evidence live.
“Normal scientific dynamics such as comparison, from different points of view, regarding phenomena still under study have caused confusion. For the first time in human history, this confrontation took place in the spotlight, in a state of complete emergency, before an audience unprepared to understand its value.
Confusion increased with the media space given to unscientific opinions, such as No Vax. How do you explain that excluding these voices from the scientific debate is not censorship?
“Sometimes the same scheme used in political talk shows is applied to science, where two sites are compared on an equal footing. Thus we fall into the trap of “false balance”: data and conjectures are placed on the same level and the imposter is presented as a legitimate voice opposing the voice of the world. scientific if new data appears, but one cannot think of proposing an opposing viewpoint for each topic, if it is devoid of such data. The vaccine is effective or ineffective. Data should be compared with data, opinions and opinions.”
Do you think citizens lost faith in science after the pandemic?
“In the beginning there was a general who fell in love out of fear and emergency. Then impatience accompanied by a lack of knowledge of the method and time required to understand a virus that is still unknown, generated rejection among some.”
Is this also the basis of the so-called reluctance to vaccinate?
There is an underestimation of risks and a false sense of impunity resulting from decades of luxury. Everything also derives from constant errors in the evaluation of our brain. Cognitive neuroscientists explain that it has not yet adapted to modernity and tends to respond to new things in an irrational way, amplifying the risks and minimizing the benefits. The National Research Council has the Immunization Outcomes Observatory that has been monitoring the Covid-19 vaccination campaign since September 2020. The data says that in the first eight months of the survey, the frequency dropped from 33 to 11 percent. It means that doubts can be overcome if an atmosphere of trust is created.”
“I feel that politics does not trust science. He taught politics for the same reason,” he said in his first address to the Senate.
With the epidemic Politics has seen a new relationship with science. And the difficulties of dialogue emerged between the facts that do not know one another. Our country suffers from a chronic lack of stable places where science and politics can confront each other, beyond emergencies. I am confident that Parliament will consider the opportunity to establish permanently dedicated offices for the study of scientific issues, as is done in other European countries.”
He once wrote that scientific research choices should be based on facts, not ideologies. What choices have been made of this kind in Italy?
“The topic of human embryonic stem cells, for example, is an ideological contradiction with no scientific basis. The famous Law 40 forbids the derivation of new strains of embryonic stem cells from “advanced” embryos from in vitro fertilization, which are instead frozen and destroyed, but allows the same strains to be taken from abroad. We cannot produce it but we can import it. In 2009 I challenged a request to cancel a ministerial declaration that prevented us from proposing research on the basis of these cells.”
In 2013 she was one of the first scientists to oppose Parliament’s decision to continue clinical trials of the Stamina method. In this case, on what basis was the political decision based?
“To us scholars, it was immediately obvious that she was. useless mash. We did not understand how a general hospital (Hospital Brescia), politicians and public opinion could believe the efficacy of the drug on the basis of the statements of those who sponsored it. We freaked out, and started struggling to state the facts. I remember the nights I didn’t sleep with a bunch of mates to decide how to intervene, who to contact, and amass an infinite number of statements and texts. In 2013, he was unexpectedly appointed senator for life. It was my first participation in Stamina. And the story ended with criminal convictions of the promoters of this alleged method.”
A year ago he was the only one who opposed the law that equates organic and vitality. According to her, it was like putting reality and magic on the same level, as one would risk doing it by legitimizing the Stamina method. What threat came from biodynamics?
Biodynamic farming encourages esoteric practices and preparations that must be sprinkled on the fields with homeopathic doses to allow the cosmic forces to increase their fertility. We were the first country in Europe to open the doors of legislation to magical thinking: six of the major Italian scientific societies in the agricultural sector have defined this possibility as “unacceptable”. Fortunately, the Chamber subsequently canceled that parity.”
Do you feel that you are one of the few advocates of the scientific method in Parliament?
“I’m just a scholar in Parliament.”
What is your stance on non-traditional medical practices that benefit all people?
“Speaking of homeopathy that I know well, all the empirical evidence speaks of a ‘benefit’ equal to that of placebo. In recent years, the French counterpart of our Higher Institute of Health conducted an analysis of more than 800 scientific studies and then concluded in 2019 that homeopathic products did not prove sufficiently effective to justify reimbursement. Thus, France, although the homeland of the multinational homeopathy product Boiron, came to the inevitable conclusions of a pharmacological inconsistency. Medicine has a scientific basis that is growing and perfecting thanks to a solid body of evidence. The only alternative to that is non-medicinerisky if used in place of scientifically valid treatments.”
His last book is called Arm yourself with knowledge. Who should be armed and why?
“The title suggests a possibility for everyone. In order to draw strength from science, to use its method as a tool to meet daily challenges, individual and collective. It means first of all studying, deepening, understanding and comparing logic. Then it was decided.”
Armed with science, what should we say to those who express a no-fax thought these days?
“Listening to the reasons is the first step in finding the arguments for overcoming them. Among those who have heard in recent months, the fear of acting like a trial rabbit to get a treatment done in a hurry. In fact, we’ve drawn on twenty years of previous research, and for Covid vaccines, companies have included much larger samples than other clinical trials, in the order of upwards of 30-40 thousand people (usually a few thousand). The communicative challenge of science today is to establish trust and familiarity with the scientific method until it becomes stable. A goal that can only be achieved by continuing to occupy public space.”
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