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Giuseppe Conte speaks at a meeting of the Five Star Movement on 1 March in Rome.

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Italy’s new prime minister defended discredited stem cell therapy

The electoral victory of two populist parties in March had Italian scientists worried that a new era of antiscientific policies might be around the corner—and yesterday’s appointment of Giuseppe Conte as the country’s new prime minister is making some even more nervous. Conte, a civil law professor at the University of Florence in Italy with no previous political experience, helped a family win the right to try a discredited stem cell treatment that caused a major uproar in Italy 5 years ago. There are also questions about his academic credentials.

After weeks of negotiations, Italian President Sergio Mattarella gave Conte a mandate last night to form a new coalition government between the antiestablishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the anti-immigration Lega Nord (Northern League) party.

In 2013, Conte acted as the lawyer for the family of Sofia de Barros, a 4-year-old girl suffering from metachromatic leukodystrophy, an incurable disease of the nervous system. She had undergone a stem cell treatment provided by the Stamina Foundation that never had been proved to work and that most scientists regarded as a scam. The therapy, provided under “compassionate use” rules, was discontinued after an investigation, but De Barros’s parents wanted it to continue; Conte won the case, sparking an 18-month dispute that eventually led the Italian Parliament to order a €3 million clinical trial of the therapy, which the government later called off at the recommendation of a panel of experts. Stamina Founder Davide Vannoni was convicted of criminal conspiracy after plea bargaining in 2015 and is now under investigation again.

Conte did his legal work pro bono, his family revealed earlier this week after the newspaper Il manifesto wrote about Conte’s role. (De Barros died on 31 December 2017.) Conte’s involvement went beyond his legal work; according to media reports at the time, he was also one of the founders of Voa Voa, a foundation directed by De Barros’s father that advocated for “freedom of cure” and sponsored Stamina. How much of a role Conte played in the foundation is unclear, however. M5S was very supportive of Vannoni’s controversial method as well.

Conte may also have embellished his academic past. On his CV, he wrote that he “perfected and updated his studies” at New York University (NYU) in New York City, but on Monday, The New York Times reported that the university had no records of Conte as a student or faculty member. (An NYU spokesperson told the newspaper it was possible that he attended 1- or 2-day programs, however.) Since then, Italian newspapers have also questioned Conte’s claims that he spent time at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the “International Kultur Institut” in Vienna. The latter does not appear to exist, Associated Press and others have reported; a language school in Vienna called Internationales Kulturinstitut declined to comment. Conte’s CV also listed a membership of the European Union’s “Social Justice Group,” which does not exist either. There was a volunteer group of professors named Social Justice in European Private Law, which wrote a Manifesto in 2009, but Conte was never part of it, and only signed the Manifesto later on, the website Valigia Blu reported.

Conte has not responded to the allegations about this CV, but M5S has issued a statement defending him.

*Update, 28 May, 5:39 a.m.: Giuseppe​ Conte gave up his effort to form a new government on 27 May, after Italian President Sergio Mattarella vetoed Paolo Savona, a euroskeptic, as the country's new finance minister.

*Update, 4 June, 8:45 a.m.: Giuseppe​​ Conte was sworn in as prime minister on 1 June after presenting a new Cabinet in which Paolo Savona is European affairs minister.