By: Gilberto Corbellini, Michele De Luca, Luca Pani
Every time we were at dinner with Paolo Bianco we would end up having vivid discussions. It was normal to disagree with Paolo. But we can also say it was a pleasure. Not just because these disagreements did not affect our friendship (although sometimes they would suspend it for a few months), but for the fact that we shared the ethical value of scientific research and experimental methodology.
Paolo Bianco, an anatomical pathologist of the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, died a week ago. Less than five months before he had written a commemoration for the General Commander of the Carabinieri NAS (Unit for Health Protection) Cosimo Picchino. Perhaps he had never imagined it was going to be his turn. Or maybe he did, as he always seemed aware of the future that awaited him.
He left as he had wished, even if he had not yet considered his earthly existence finished. The scientific community has not only lost an indispensible reference for research on mesenchymal stem cells, but also a voice that was always rigorous and impartial. He had been a student, as he keenly liked to remind himself and others, of Antonio Ascenzi, an almost mythological figure of the Roman school of anatomical pathology, and this was the foundation for his rigour in reason and observation. To this solid preparation Paolo added his vast interests and unmatched creativity.
He knew how to get to the heart of issues, and demanded a great deal from himself and from others – concerning the quality of experimental data, but also and more importantly the goals or the feasibility of partnerships.
He spent some years at University College London, where he became a leading world expert in diseases of bone tissue and skeletal cells. He then worked at the National Institutes of Health (US), where he was asked to stay to direct a research group.
Bianco nonetheless preferred to return to Italy, a choice he sometimes regretted. Back at La Sapienza University he created the Laboratory of Stem Cells and gathered an excellent group of researchers from the University’s Department of Molecular Medicine. He enjoyed boundless admiration from his students, because his lessons (not least his lectures!) were exemplary for clarity, rigour, brilliance and humour. He was also well known for his improvisations; from time to time he would challenge his students to decide the subject he would lecture on, without having prepared himself.
Paolo was unique, because with him you could talk about anything: from stem cells to Shakespeare, from the Fibonacci sequence to the theoretical conflict between Keynes and Hayek (of course he was a Keynesian and if market liberalism was defended there would be lightning strikes and thunder!). He had an incredible sense of humour, unique and boundless, like all people with exceptional intelligence. But above all we like to remember him for his civic commitment to freedom of scientific research.
During the referendum on Law 40, he decided that doing thorough research in the laboratory was not enough, and argued that to continue to uphold scientific freedom, informing the citizens who funded the research on true facts was necessary. At that time he was outraged by the notion that human embryos, which were destined for destruction, could be equated to sick and living people, and that this law would therefore prohibit research that would have brought advancements to our knowledge. He did not even spare himself in a battle against an unreasonable law on animal testing, which he saw as an obstacle for the understanding of complex genetic diseases, and therefore also for new research on potential cures.
Paolo’s largest commitment, which led him to ignore his health while also making him subject to threats and defamation, was dedicated to the Stamina case. He regarded the Stamina chapter as an example of scientific, ethical and moral regression. Faced with mounting irrational results, he devoted his life for months to the study of this phenomenon, and to intervening in the media in order to explain to the public, in a clear and accessible manner, what mesenchymal stem cells really are and what they have the potential to do. He did so regardless of the potential disapproval of some charlatans and University professors in Italy and abroad. He was one of the first to understand that behind the use of mesenchymal stem cells an insidious business had begun, and that someone in Italy was trying to take advantage of this case to liberalise treatments that were both dangerous and unnecessary.
Collaborating and discussing with Paolo had an immense value because, with rigour and precision, he would thrust, demolishing and rebuilding the walls of arrogance and stereotypes that had managed sometimes even to make the history of science, to show how false, often insignificant and trivial these were. With this approach, his "lessons" on life always returned dignity to the highest form of expression of the human brain; critical thinking through factual reference, of pre-established truths, or of conservative academic matchmakers and intellectual frauds.
We will all miss you, our friend.
In memory of Paolo Bianco, 1955-2015
This article originally appeared in Il Sole-24 Ore, in Italian and appears in translation here by kind permission of the authors and publisher. See also The scientist who urged us never to surrender by Elena Cattaneo.