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Nevada doctor pleads not guilty of stem cell scam

17 October 2011
Appeared in BioNews 629

A US doctor accused of implanting stem cells into chronically ill patients pleaded not guilty at a court hearing on Thursday 13 October. Dr Ralph Conti, of Henderson, Nevada, has been accused of transplanting stem cells harvested from placental tissue into patients, at the direction of Alfred Sapse, who was falsely claiming to be a doctor.

Sapse, the director of StemCell Pharma Inc., who has never held a medical license from any US state, allegedly told patients he was a retired foreign physician, officials said. The company advertised its business to investors and patients as a cure for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa.

The men are facing 34 fraud and conspiracy charges. A paediatrician by trade, Dr Conti was found to have had no prior training in stem cell therapy. Sapse, who was indicted on mail and wire fraud charges in 2010, also pleaded not guilty to the new charges, which supersede the previous ones. His lawyer declined to comment.

'By misrepresenting his credentials, the nature of his treatment, the source of his 'stem cells', and the adverse effects suffered by previous patients, defendant Sapse convinced chronically ill patients to undergo experimental implant procedures, many of which were performed by Conti', the indictment read.

Dr Conti and Sapse operated their clinic in the Las Vegas area, administering stem cells from placental tissues to 34 patients between February and November 2006.

A single implant was found to cost $2,500 (£1,600) and the company made profits of over $1 million dollars. The US District Court in Las Vegas heard on Thursday how Sapse spent the majority of this on gambling.

It was reported that some patients who received treatment later developed infections. This triggered suspicion, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the clinic with a warning, alleging that Sapse failed to properly obtain, store, test and process the placentas, or screen donors and patients.

Sapse then moved his operation to Mexico where he reportedly implanted 100 more patients with placental tissue between 2007 and 2010. It is alleged he often performed the procedure himself.

Six paediatric clinics are currently under Dr Conti's direction in the Las Vegas area, and it is reported that he intends to continue running them whilst awaiting trial. Dr Conti's lawyer said: 'The matter relates to events that occurred five years ago and is unrelated to the paediatric medical practice he has operated successfully in Las Vegas for more than 20 years'.

He added that Dr Conti was cooperating with federal authorities and 'believes the facts of the case will unfold in a different fashion'.

If found guilty both men face lengthy prison sentences and fines of up to $250,000, officials told the Las Vegas Sun. They will appear before magistrates on 22 March next year.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Henderson doctor faces fraud charges over stem cell operations
Las Vegas Sun |  12 October 2011
Nevada Doctor Indicted in Alleged Stem Cell Scam
abc News |  13 October 2011
Nevada doctor pleads not guilty in stem cell case
Newsday |  13 October 2011
Nevada physician pleads not guilty in stem cell scam case; trial with fake doc set for March
Washington Post |  13 October 2011
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