Rome

Borgonovo, symbol of Lou Gehrig's fight, dies

'Ciao, hero' tweets ex-teammate Baggio

Borgonovo, symbol of Lou Gehrig's fight, dies

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, June 28 - The flag-bearer in Italian soccer's campaign to explain the high rate of Lou Gehrig's Disease among former players, ex-Fiorentina and AC Milan striker Stefano Borgonovo, died of the incurable nerve-wasting condition at 49 Thursday. "Ciao Stefano, hero", tweeted former Fiorentina teammate and Italy great Roberto Baggio while the Azzurri's current star, AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli, tweeted "Your strength was a life lesson" and ex-Juventus and Italy forward Alessandro Del Piero called Borgonovo on his Web site "a great fighter who loved soccer and life". The Lou Gehrig death rate among ex-players in Italy is 12 times that of the general population. Top anti-doping prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello has been probing more than 40 deaths for 10 years. Doping, other performance enhancers, repetitive head trauma and pitch fertilizers have been touted as possible causes but scientists have yet to pin down the origin of the disease, which in Britain is called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a form of Motor Neurone Disease. There is no cure for ALS but Italian researchers said earlier this week they may have made a breakthrough along the path to finding one. Borgonovo went public with his condition in 2008 and re-energised efforts to solve the riddle, despite never blaming his playing days for it. "I want to find the new penicillin," he insisted. Borgonovo repeatedly said the disease, which he called The Bitch, "wasn't brought on or hastened by anything that happened to me on the soccer pitch". An all-star charity match between his two former clubs, Fiorentina and Milan, helped set up a charity in Borgonovo's name which established a research foundation with funding from the Italian soccer federation. Italy donned black arm bands in Borgonovo's honour for their Confederations Cup semi-final against Spain Thursday night, which ended in an 8-7 shoot-out defeat. ALS is known as Lou Gehrig's Disease after the US baseball legend who was the first sports star to die of it, aged 37, in 1941. The first well-known Italian soccer player to die of ALS was ex-Genoa captain Gianluca Signorini, who died in 2002 aged 42. Ex-Chelsea boss and player Gianluca Vialli, a former striker for Italy, Sampdoria and Juventus, has his own ALS foundation with former Juventus and Napoli midfielder Massimo Mauro, now a Sky Italy commentator. Researchers around the world have been trying for 60 years to find some way to attack ALS but there has not been any significant progress. However, an Italian team announced on Monday that they held out high hopes from their groundbreaking stem-cell research. Six patients suffering from ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases involved in preliminary tests showed no adverse reactions to stem cells grafted into their bone marrow, they said. "These are just the first steps. But we already have the green light from the National Institutes of Health for the next phase trials, which will involve six more patients and then six more. After that, we can move on to demonstrating the therapy can actually stop the disease," said chief researcher Angelo Vescovi. It was the first experiment in the world with this kind of therapy, which involved using neural cells from miscarried fetuses to produce unlimited quantities of stem cells. "Vescovi's research is cutting-edge. If it is proven effective, the Italian method could be the cure for these fatal diseases," said Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin.

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