IT COMES AS a shock when Dr Gianfranco Merizzi, the flamboyant Italian pharmacist who built a billion-lire empire around removing unsightly dimples from women's skin, announces that his next ambition is to help rid the Third World of Aids without making a cent in profit. The dapper 50-year-old Italian says he is investing the money he made making and marketing a herbal cellulite 'cure' into, among other pioneering endeavours, developing a vaccine that prevents HIV developing into Aids. Merizzi says the vaccine works on animals, and once tests on humans have been approved and the drug verified, he is prepared to sell it for no profit to poor countries that have borne the brunt of the horrific plague. 'We don't want to make profit on people who are poor and have the right to live,' he says, sitting inside a function room of the Conrad International hotel in Admiralty, where he has just been talking to the media and his local retail agents about his cellulite wonder-pill Cellasene. 'But you don't mind making profit on women with cellulite,' an eavesdropping colleague pipes up mischievously. 'Well, yes. Cellulite doesn't kill you,' retorts Merizzi, known for his lavish lifestyle, which includes dating models, judging beauty contests, driving Ferraris and racing old Formula One cars around Europe. The doctor, who worked in cosmetics after graduating with a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of Turin, first invented Up Lift, an electronic pulse machine to tighten buttocks, but struck gold with his creation of Cellasene in the early 1990s. His company, Medestea International, has sold more than 15 million red brick pills in 25 countries, including Hong Kong. Other medics have questioned their use, so for his visit to the SAR he came armed with bundles of independent research from Argentina to prove the natural remedy works. A two-month course costing $328 removes 'orange peel' dimples around women's buttocks, hips, upper arms and thighs for up to six months, Merizzi claims. So commercially successful has Cellasene been that Merizzi's company, based in state-of-the-art facilities 60 kilometres south of Rome, has swelled in eight years and he now employs more than 200 people, including 'some of the best scientists in Italy'. It also invests in work by outside teams of scientists and medics at clinics, universities and other research centres. 'All the profits made [from Cellasene] are invested in the other lines of research. If this is a flop we are going to lose a lot of money,' says Merizzi. His other projects are also at the cutting-edge of medicine. He plans to tackle illnesses associated with ageing - such as depression and other mental illnesses, and menopause - through body cell rejuvenation. Most controversially, he is using recently miscarried foetuses from hospitals to harvest live stem cells and create blood vessels, from which eventually he plans to grow spare parts such as livers and kidneys for humans. If Merizzi is switching from aesthete to altruist, is he more fulfilled working on tackling deadly diseases than on lumpy thighs? 'Are you more satisfied if you eat, drink or do your hobby?' he replies rhetorically. 'Everything is satisfying if you achieve something. Of course to save a life is more important than to make your body more beautiful. If I had a choice, of course I would save a life.' Merizzi is a sixth-generation pharmacist ('I was forced to do pharmacy as a child') but is glad he opted for that career over his first inclination to go into medical work. 'As a company director I can work on 16 projects. A surgeon is just a player working on one,' he says. 'In my job I have to drive staff to show them the right way to go.' Of his many projects, the Aids vaccine is what he appears most excited about. A scientist friend brought him in on the study two years ago. He provided funds and they patented the product. Merizzi says they tackled the problem in a new way. 'Previously vaccines have not been successful because the virus mutates. You create a vaccine which generates antibodies to kill one virus, but it cannot kill the mutated one,' he explains. Merizzi's team decided to look in a different direction to other scientists who were looking at genetic resistance. 'We did something much simpler. Scientists know that all viruses, even if they mutate, have to enter the body cell in order to survive and replicate. They need a special key to enter the cell. This key is the same for everybody. 'So we didn't focus on the mutating virus, because it's time wasted. There are thousands and thousands of different forms.' Instead the scientists produced a polypeptide - a chain of amino acids - which creates antibodies that can destroy the 'key' so the virus cannot enter the cell. The virus remains dormant. Merizzi says that two factors remain unknown: whether the virus will disappear from the body after a number of years, and whether people who have the vaccine remain carriers who are liable to infect others. So far, the vaccine has worked on trials with rats and rabbits. All the animals were infected with HIV. Those which received no vaccine died, the others survived and live normally, he says. The vaccine, delivered in three separate jabs, must be injected after infection but while the body can still create antibodies. Antibodies can be generated three-quarters of the way between first signs of sickness and, if it follows, death. 'You give this to people who are sick, but what we must look at is giving it to people who are not sick. If they were contaminated they would immediately be protected [from illness],' says Merizzi. Researchers are currently experimenting with this possibility of using the vaccine as a preventative treatment with more tests on rats. The polypeptide was patented in July and Merizzi is seeking permission to test it on humans. The research has been sent to a medical journal The Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences in the United States for verification. 'Scientists around the world are working on other vaccines. This is our line of research and what I can tell you is that on rats and rabbits it's very effective,' says Merizzi. 'Taking into account the mechanism of action, we think that this is the right way to go in order to produce a vaccine for humans, unless there is something that we don't know that is different in humans.' Such a vaccine would have a huge demand in both the developed and developing world. 'If the vaccine is improved we will sell it to Third World countries for nearly cost price, so three doses may cost just 10 or 20 Coca-Colas. Just to cover our production and some research costs, this is a commitment of our company.' No one would argue with that. But if Cellasene has had its brushes with controversy, that may be a pinprick compared with the potential furore over Merizzi's stem-cell research. But he insists his technique sidesteps controversy. 'Religious people are worried by the ethics of killing an embryo, which they see as taking a life, no matter how small. However, we start from something which is dead and take life from it,' he says. 'We are in contact with hospitals. When some women have a miscarriage or car accident where the mother and foetus die, we have a few hours available [to get the foetus]. We treat this dead material to get stem cells and then we replicate them.' These stem cells are multiplied until they can produce vessels in a human body. The possibilities of this are mind-boggling. Injecting stem cells can bring back to life heart tissue and prevent heart attacks. 'In principle you can grow a whole leg,' says an animated Merizzi. 'In future, when you are young they will take just a little bit of your skin, then a lab will replicate your stem cells. From these we can produce your liver, kidney, lungs, stomach and so on. It's like living with a lot of spare parts and this is good.' Just like a car, patients can pop in and buy a new engine part. 'Heart attack? No problem. Voila, here is a new heart for you,' Merizzi offers as an example. How soon will this become reality? 'No serious person can tell you. For complete organs I don't know, but I think my daughter, who is now 18, will take advantage of this. Before dying she will have spare organs.' He adds: 'What we can do now is produce blood vessels in animals.' Tests on humans are planned for next year. Merizzi is hoping the Italian minister of health will allow human tests of the Aids vaccine at the same time or even before. 'When they hear the vaccine works in humans, the ministers of health around the world will allow us to go fast because this is of huge general interest. This is just a hope, but we have reason to believe they will give us permission,' he says. For Merizzi it's an exciting time. He still spends much of his energy promoting Cellasene and a male variant may be on the market soon. Because men eat so much meat from force-fed animals, which develop high levels of oestrogen, they too are developing lumpy fat deposits, he says. It's clear this loquacious doctor is a salesman as well as a scientist (his press releases boast he scored the highest marks at university, and of his colourful personal life), but with his Cellasene success, you write him off at your peril. 'When you have goals to achieve you live well,' he says of his fondness for life in the fast lane. 'You have to keep your mind on the project. You have to run.'