When Silvio Berlusconi said he wanted to live forever, he wasn’t joking.
Italy’s preternaturally tanned prime minister, who made his fortune in real estate and media, became the biggest investor in a cancer-drug company in December and supports a science venture whose research he says can help him live past 100.
The 73-year-old Berlusconi has already fought off prostate cancer, dodged allegations of tax evasion, mafia association and sexual misconduct, and defeated younger rivals to become Italy’s longest-serving prime minister. He has overseen his party since 1993, while the opposition has had seven chiefs.
“Silvio has defied all odds politically, now he’s trying to challenge science,” said James Walston, who teaches politics at American University in Rome. Berlusconi’s popularity dropped in a poll released May 18 to the lowest level since he won his third election in 2008.
The billionaire raised his stake in Milan-based Molecular Medicine SpA through his holding company Fininvest SpA to 24 percent at the end of last year. He put his youngest son Luigi, a 21-year-old who studies economics at Bocconi University, on the board. The holding was worth 40.6 million euros ($50 million) on Dec. 22, the day Fininvest disclosed the increase. MolMed has two cancer drugs in the most advanced stages of clinical tests.
Berlusconi also backs MolMed’s second-biggest shareholder, Milan foundation and clinic San Raffaele del Monte Tabor, which plans to build a research and treatment center this year devoted to fending off the effects of aging. The project is known as Quo Vadis, Latin for “where are you going.”
While Berlusconi hasn’t invested directly in San Raffaele, the clinic was the biggest beneficiary of government funds for research from 2000 to 2008, and the only one whose annual allowance hasn’t been cut, according to the latest available figures from the Health Ministry.
Berlusconi said in March at a political rally in Rome’s San Giovanni square that he expects “we will defeat cancer” before the end of his term. He told reporters gathered outside Milan’s Trattoria Giannino last August that he’s investing in a group that wants to raise average life expectancy to 120 years.
“So maybe in 100 years, I’ll think of a successor,” Berlusconi said. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
He isn’t the only aging industrialist invested in MolMed. Leonardo Del Vecchio, 75, founder of eyewear company Luxottica Group SpA, and Ennio Doris, 69, chief executive officer of the finance and insurance group Mediolanum SpA, 35 percent-owned by Fininvest, each own 8.2 percent of the biotechnology company.
Taking a Snooze
For all the talk about having the stamina of a 40-year-old, needing only three hours of sleep and dating young women, Berlusconi is the oldest of the G-7 leaders and during the 2006 election campaign he suffered fainting spells. When European leaders commemorated the fall of the Berlin wall last November, he was caught on camera falling asleep.
Berlusconi’s ties to San Raffaele’s founder Luigi Maria Verze brought him to MolMed and Quo Vadis.
Verze, a spry 90-year-old priest who still heads the clinic, befriended Berlusconi 40 years ago when both men were seeking to buy land near Milan. Verze has created a sprawling campus around San Raffaele in Milan’s northeastern suburbs that houses a university, research labs and several biotechs, including MolMed.
The company, founded in 1996, has two potential cancer medicines. One attacks tumors and clinical tests are under way to measure its effects on malignancies of the liver, lungs, ovaries and rectum, as well as on mesothelioma, a form of cancer that develops on the organs’ protective lining.
The product “could help us make a giant leap,” MolMed Chief Executive Officer Claudio Bordignon told reporters May 12. He compared it with Roche Holding AG’s Avastin, which had sales of 6.2 billion Swiss francs ($5.4 billion) last year.
While Avastin works by choking off the blood supply to tumors, the MolMed treatment combines two tactics to fight malignant growths. Scientists fused a toxic substance known as a cytokine with a compound called peptide that guides it to cancer cells to avoid damaging healthy ones.
MolMed’s other advanced drug helps rebuild the immune system of leukemia patients using stem cell transplants from family members who aren’t a perfect match, the company says.
“They have a diversified approach with those two products,” said Rodolphe Besserve, an analyst at Societe Generale SA in Paris, who has a “buy” recommendation on MolMed. “There’s no domino effect if one fails.”
SocGen helped arrange the company’s initial public offering in 2008.
Besserve estimates the tumor-busting drug could have annual sales of 900 million euros a year, while the transplant treatment could bring in as much as 500 million euros.
Drop Since IPO
MolMed has dropped 38 percent to 1.33 euros since the IPO in March 2008 in Italian trading. Shareholders approved a plan in April to raise as much as 70 million euros in a stock sale.
Berlusconi attended the 2007 groundbreaking of the Quo Vadis 150 million-euro clinic and research center, which will focus on preventing and curing the diseases of old age. The center will be built in Lavagno, just outside Verona and near Verze’s hometown.
Quo Vadis plans to mine the connections between nutrition, exercise, heredity and disease history to establish a health plan. Patients won’t just get advice about what drugs to take, they will be able to consult with the clinic to choose what’s best to eat at a restaurant, San Raffaele said in an e-mailed statement describing plans for Quo Vadis.
Sports to Biotech
Before Fininvest purchased the holding in MolMed in 2004, it was focused on media, publishing and sports.
“MolMed gave us the opportunity to diversify our investment portfolio,” Fininvest Chief Executive Pasquale Cannatelli said in an interview in April. “In December, we increased our stake, a signal of our confidence in MolMed, which we’ll continue to support financially.”
Berlusconi selected San Raffaele in 1997 when he had surgery for prostate cancer. One of his personal doctors, Alberto Zangrillo, works at the clinic as a professor of anesthesiology and intensive care. Last year, he appointed one of the clinic’s doctors, Ferruccio Fazio, an expert in nuclear medicine, as health minister.
With three years left in his term, Berlusconi has yet to appoint a political heir. Public confidence dropped last month to 41 percent, the lowest since he won his third election, after a public spat with Gianfranco Fini, his party’s co-founder.
With science on his side, Berlusconi’s career may hold more surprises, said Antonio Noto, director of Rome-based IPR, which conducts the monthly confidence poll.
When a 42-year-old man struck him with a miniature replica of Milan’s cathedral in December, breaking two teeth and fracturing his nose, Berlusconi’s bodyguards shoved him into the safety of his car. He pushed back out of the vehicle to stand before the crowd and cameras, blood trickling from his nose and mouth, drawing sympathy from an initially hostile crowd.
“Every time someone has tried to write him off, he’s come back bigger and stronger,” Noto said. “If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet against him.”