Stem cells and research: the new prevention frontier

We meet Luana Piroli, general manager of InScientiaFides, a Biobank holding a Fact Netcord accreditation, active since 2008, which operates in the fields of research and the conservation of adult stem cells.

Luana Piroli, you have been working in the health field for 20 years: how much do you think health education is necessary in your work? Which tools and channels are able to promote the appropriate level of health awareness in each person?

In my opinion, and above all according to my own experience, we are still very far from creating effective tools and channels that allow people to understand what choices to make about their health, particularly when we deal with issues like prevention. In order to do a good job, you should start from grade school and make each person responsible for their health.

Can you help us understand the current situation of healthcare in Italy?

From an educational point of view, there are two places where health education should be carried out today: free clinics and primary care physicians’ practices.

This, however, does not happen, because general practitioners, who only see patients by appointment, exclusively dedicate their time to those who can plan for an appointment in advance, whereas in the free clinics there are no spaces dedicated to health education.

Do primary care physician only cure an already existing pathology, then?

Yes, general physicians deal with any obvious illnesses, but the real challenge is to avoid them by spreading the correct information about the proper functioning of a person’s body, promoting tools that can be useful to both the physical and the mental well-being.

Prevention is a word and a concept that, in our country, does not seem to be at the centre of anybody’s attention.

InScientiaFides deals with the conservation of cord blood stem cells. How important are health education and information for you?

InScientiaFides was created to respond to the scientific community’s need to create private conservation locations to meet the growing need for transplants and reduce the difficulty of finding a compatible donor when needed.

Creating a health facility like ours has been a challenge because many people do not know what stem cells are and how important they are in our development.

So that’s why health education is fundamental.

Can you help us understand what they are and how are they used from a clinical standpoint today?

The collection of stem cells at the time of birth is an important biological insurance of sorts, and private conservation offers families a chance to access it, in case of need.

It is a procedure that can be done in all hospitals and does not cause any problem to either the baby or the mother.

There are more than 70 clinical uses for stem cells, mostly related to blood disorders such as leukaemia, lymphomas, myelomas and neuroblastoma, but also to diabetes, multiple sclerosis and many other diseases.

Private preservation is legitimised by an Italian ministerial decree, just like dedicated autologous donation and conservation.

Citizens are free to choose whether to donate, and therefore lose the ownership of their sample, performing an altruistic act, or to keep the stem cells available to their family.

Donation is an altruistic act. So if donors need it, they can get their sample back, correct?

No, donating entails a loss of ownership of the sample, which then becomes anonymous. The sample gets added to the public biobank, which can use it for research, enter it in the world registers, and even throw it away, when it needs space to store new samples.

Unfortunately, the donation system in Italy does not work very well: the collection is only active at certain birth centres, although institutions recognise it as a primary service.

I do not understand, what if you need to track down a donated sample to use it for your own child, in case of need?

In this case, you would start a normal search in the world register of samples, with the hope of identifying a compatible donor.

How likely is it to find a compatible donor?

The chances are very low: this has led to the introduction, 15 years ago, of private storage services that guarantee immediate use of the samples at intra-family level, not only for a child but also for family members, which is called  “autologous-allogeneic-family conservation”.

Does your structure operate all throughout Italy and is it authorised to collect the samples?

Yes, we operate throughout Italy, in all the hospitals, and through our FactNetcord accreditation we guarantee the release of the samples in all transplant centres worldwide.

Are people who are about to have a child aware of how important autologous conservation is?

Unfortunately, no: information is often missing, nobody explains parents that this opportunity exists, neither the gynaecologists who assist parents during pregnancy, nor the health facilities that follow the actual birth.

Why is that?

Because, in fact, it seems that nobody has an interest in filling this void.

Health education is not linked to any economic or political interests and, therefore, it isn’t anyone’s priority.

We, as InScientiaFides, have made a strong commitment to promote awareness: by talking to parents, promoting conferences with doctors and nurses, and creating a book called “The story of a cord”, with the help of prof. Giuseppe Visani and of dr. Alessandro Isidori, whose purpose is to share, through the voice of stem cells themselves, their great importance.

The book has been transformed into a small film with the support of Acthoons, in order to disseminate information further and to allow everyone to be in a position to make an informed choice.

What motivated you to start this kind of business?

My background is in the healthcare world, I worked in Intensive Care for many years and personally managed the organ donation process.

What I have learned over the years is that stem cells represent our primary biological heritage: they are and will be the key to help us overcome serious diseases.

I would have liked to set up a company dedicated to both donation and private preservation, but the Italian health political lobby does not allow the creation of private facilities like ours in the Italian State, although it authorises the collection at all hospitals, as well as private storage.

The healthcare structure that I manage, InScientiaFides, is located in San Marino and has state-of-the-art certifications required by the highest scientific standards.

We have financed several research lines over the years, investing over 1 million euros, in collaboration with the Sapienza University of Rome and with the San Raffaele of Milan, with whom we have shared many international conferences.

Believing in working for the good of others is what drives us every day.

In Italy, the private sector is often confused with profit, without understanding that reality is very different.

How do you define your work?

My work is wonderful, it allows me to discover new nuances of the human character every day and to study new ways to improve the quality of life.

We have been concentrating on regenerative medicine for two years, and this year we will launch a new unique product.

Emanuela Zini
My professional life has been marked by several big changes that made me grow as a person and as a leader, develop new skills and mental flexibility, which in turn allows me to face challenges from a different, unique perspective. To me, writing represent a way to communicate with myself and with others. Telling stories and engaging my readers are the challenges that I am currently facing within a wider editorial project.

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