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."