Field Notes: Elena Cattaneo, politics, and practice.

In this strident American election season, coverage of science in politics seems to have flown under the radar. In the past though, voters in California have been asked to directly weigh in on scientific decisions. In 2004, 59% of Californians — more than seven million people — voted with overwhelming bipartisan support to pass Proposition 71, authorizing a $3 billion investment in stem cell research and establishing California’s stem cell agency (officially titled the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM). This entity is in charge of disbursing the $3 billion in funding for stem cell research. This is just one important example of the intersection of politics and science.

At the 11th annual Cell & Gene Meeting on the Mesa in San Diego, Dr. Elena Cattaneo gave a public symposium on “Stem Cells, a history of freedom, hope, and reality.” Cattaneo is a Professor of Pharmacology and Director and Co-Founder of the Unistem, the Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Milano, Italy, but she is also heavily involved in the Italian government as she was appointed a “senator for life” in 2013.

Becoming a Senator for Life is not just an honorific in Italy. Senators for life, of which there are only five at any given time, are appointed by the Italian president, and they are accorded equal rights and responsibilities as the elected legislators. Cattaneo spends every Wednesday in her senate offices; the other days she spends in her lab. This is quite a unique situation for a scientist. Often, politicians and scientists are mutually exclusive professions. However, Cattaneo has been using her position to advocate for science in the broader public sphere in many ways. These efforts have not been without controversy. Cattaneo has spent years speaking out against an unapproved and untested stem cell “treatment” that had gained a foothold in the Italian medical system. The backers of this “Stamina therapy” claimed to take stem cells from the bone marrow of patients and turn them in to brain cells to treat patients with debilitating neurodegenerative disorders. The technique was never tested or published in any scientific journal, and how the cells were manipulated was kept entirely secret. Cattaneo was critical of these practices, and received a lot of condemnation from people who thought patients should be allowed to undergo unproven therapies. She has written several articles and very recently, a book (in Italian), touting the influence of politics on science.

Cattaneo’s scientific work has focused on Huntington’s disease (HD), a fatal inherited disease that affects movement, cognition, and behavior. It is caused by a mutation in the Huntingtin (HTT) gene, wherein the sequence of the DNA ‘letters’ which comprise the genetic alphabet — A, T, C and G — is flawed. The HTT mutation involves the expansion of a repetitive region of the letters CAG. Everyone’s Huntingtin gene contains a variable number of CAG repeats, but if the number of repeats becomes too large (over 35), they will develop Huntington’s disease. Cattaneo has been curious why these repeats exist, and why they can be so variable in humans. By studying different organisms with a range of evolutionary relationships to humans, she has found that the number of CAG repeats increases with the increasing complexity of an organism’s nervous system. Her team has also been able to model this in a lab dish. By using stem cells with a variety of CAG repeat sizes, they observe increases in the development of brain stem cells with higher repeat numbers.

In California, we are fortunate to have many outstanding scientists who participate in policy discussions in the same vein as Cattaneo. Additionally, our initiative process allows voters to directly influence state policy. Proposition 71 is evidence for the direct connection between science and politics. Perhaps this is one more thing for voters to take in to consideration when weighing their electoral choices. As Cattaneo said at the symposium: “If we’re not practicing good science, we’re probably not practicing good democracy.”