Health Entrepreneur Beats Vatican Bank in Bid for Italian Research Center

San Raffaele del Monte Tabor Foundation; Inset: Velca

A prestigious private biomedical research center in Italy has been saved—but not by the Vatican Bank, which had designs on it. In another surprising twist to a long-running Italian drama, health industry entrepreneur Giuseppe Rotelli yesterday won the bidding for the San Raffaele del Monte Tabor Foundation, a renowned hospital and basic research institute in Milan that works on gene therapy and molecular medicine.

Researchers at San Raffaele are hopeful that they can continue to work and that grants from the European Research Council and some Italian agencies, imperiled by a looming bankruptcy, will now be safe. But some worry that the new owner has little interest in basic research.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear yet, San Raffaele has racked up a debt of almost €1.5 billion, which according to media reports was one of the reasons why its Vice President Mario Cal committed suicide in July. In October, a bankruptcy court paved the way for a deal that would allow the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR)—the Vatican Bank's official name—and Italian entrepreneur Vittorio Malacalza to take over San Raffaele. But when the deadline for bids ended yesterday at noon, Rotelli came out on top with an offer to take over €500 million of debt and invest a further €405 million. The IOR-Malacalza group gave up its right to match that bid.

Rotelli owns a medical empire of 18 hospitals in Lombardy, Italy's richest region. Some San Raffaele Italian scientists are worried that he may be less interested in basic research. "We really hope that the new owner will be aware of the fact that the value of San Raffaele is in the indissoluble marriage between healthcare and research," the institute's scientific director, Maria Grazia Roncarolo, wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsider yesterday, "and that he will guarantee its development." Roncarolo says San Raffaele's scientists are "surprised and puzzled" that the IOR-Malacalza group gave up.

Last evening, Rotelli released a brief statement that seemed aimed at allaying those fears. It said that Rotelli and his company, Velca, "want to reassure all San Raffaele employees that the primary goal of his intervention is the protection and further development of the professional skills of all those involved, in complete awareness of the value of the indivisible relationship between hospital work, teaching university, and scientific research which characterizes this institution of excellence." The statement contained no details on Rotelli's plans, however.

In another dramatic twist, San Raffaele's founder, the priest Don Luigi Verzé, died of a heart attack on 31 December, the day Rotelli made his first bid. At 91, Verzé was formally still the chair of the San Raffaele del Monte Tabor Foundation, although his actual role was very limited. Despite his religious background, Verzé never imposed religious restrictions on the institute's research, scientists say. "Let's hope that the values transmitted to us by our founder -- the centrality of man, the excellence of science, and the freedom of research—will be preserved," says Roncarolo.

The sale of San Raffaele is not final, at least on paper, and the bankruptcy court's decree leaves the door open to new investors until 23 January, when a creditors' hearing is scheduled. At a press conference held last night at San Raffaele, Pier Giuseppe Profiti, the current vice-chair of the foundation and the director of a Vatican's Paediatric Hospital in Rome, said that current San Raffaele management would help to make the transition to the new owner as smooth as possible.