Court Endorses Vatican Bank's Rescue of Italian Research Center

One of Italy's most prestigious private biomedical research centers may have gained a new lease on life. On Friday, 28 October, an Italian bankruptcy court gave the green light to an offer made by the Institute for Works of Religion, more commonly known as the Vatican Bank, and Italian entrepreneur Victor Malacalza to rescue the deeply in debt San Raffaele del Monte Tabor Foundation, which runs a clinical research hospital, an internationally respected basic science institute, and more at a research park in Milan. Officials hope the bankruptcy court's endorsement of the plan, in which the Vatican and Malacalza would take over €500 million of debt and invest a further €250 million, will persuade funding bodies to resume now-frozen payments and stem a potential exodus of scientists. The foundation's creditors will next review details of the rescue plan and a hearing is set for January to confirm that enough of them are willing to accept the terms.

The San Raffaele Institute and Hospital are the research centerpieces of a major biomedical science park masterminded by priest Luigi Verzé, who formally remains chair of the San Raffaele del Monte Tabor Foundation. Originally a private hospital founded in 1971 that quickly grew into a cutting-edge medical center, the facility now contains more than 1000 hospital beds, employs hundreds of researchers, and has well-known research efforts in gene therapy and molecular medicine. But apparently due to poor investment decisions and overly ambitious expansion, Verzé's foundation accumulated a debt close to €1.5 billion. The details behind the huge debt are still obscure and criminal investigations into alleged corruption have begun; the Italian media has extensively covered the growing scandal, with the frenzy intensifying after Verze's close colleague, San Raffaele Hospital Vice President Mario Cal, shot himself to death in July, apparently troubled by the foundation's financial woes.

Adding more intrigue to complex saga, a still undisclosed American charity has said it would be willing to donate $1 billion to strengthen teaching and research at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, which is located in the science park. The university is administratively independent from the San Rafaele foundation, but some of that money could end up helping the foundation. "After the news of the debt," says Massimo Clementi, the dean of the medical school at the university, "the charity decided that 20% of the [donated] budget can be channeled to the Newco." (Newco is the temporary name for the reformed San Raffaele del Monte Tabor Foundation that would be created if the bankruptcy deal moves forward.)

According to San Raffaele researchers, scientific activity at the Milan campus remained regular until September, when the foundation's debt was revealed, shocking everybody at the lab benches. Most research granting agencies then put funding on standby, and some suppliers no longer would provide goods. One computer manufacturer even showed up to remove leased equipment, Nature reported last month. "We have nothing to do with the money hole and San Raffaele still represents a center of excellence," says Maria Grazia Roncarolo, immunologist and the institute's scientific director. "San Raffaele is at the top of the nation for translational medicine, with 566 ongoing clinical trials and 10,000 enrolled patients."

Challenging some recent media reports, Roncarolo and other San Raffaele scientists deny that they are planning to leave due to the debt problems. Three scientists who have recently won much-desired European Research Council (ERC) grants—Giulio Cossu, Fulvio Mavilio, and Michele De Palma—are about to relocate to foreign institutions, but ERC grants allow researchers to work wherever they chose for the most part. "Their career moves started long before the economical disaster reached the surface," says Roberto Sitia, a San Raffaele senior scientist. "They will be a big loss for our institute right now, and a failure for the whole country." Still, Sitia acknowledges the financial problems are having some temporary impact. "Now we are not able to hire the future Cossu. Recruiting is on standby and I would not be surprised if our young lions were also looking around."

Moreover, several scientists with ERC grants who recently moved from the United States to join the San Raffaele Institute, such as immunologists Luca Guidotti and Matteo Iannacone, are still trying to resolve if their research funding is at risk. "The ERC must protect the financial interest of E.U. tax payers," says an ERC grant officer. For this reason and given that there are currently ongoing legal proceedings involving the San Rafaele Institute, the ERC cannot proceed with any new agreements to fund San Rafaelle researchers but it will continue to pay existing grants, the officer says.

While he is Catholic priest, Verzé didn't impose religious restrictions on the research conducted on the San Rafaelle campus and hired solely based on merit, according to scientists there. "Religion has never interfered with our science. During my 8 years of directorship, I never ever had any type of intrusion," says Jacopo Meldolesi, neuroscientist and the initial director of basic science at the institute.

The Vatican and Malacalza have not made any public statements about why they are interested in rescuing the biomedical center, nor have they issued comments about any new directions planned once they are in charge. With the favorable review from the bankruptcy court, San Rafaele's Roncarolo is hopeful that new money from the ERC, and other funding agencies, will soon flow again to Milan. "I would have expected more support, whereas there is a total closure by the E.U. This is surprising, because what we are going through will affect the entire European scientific community" she complains. "We are ready to go to Brussels and explain to ERC officers what the green light by the bankruptcy court means for our science."