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Stem cell scheme: Alleged plot targeted the terminally ill

January 3, 2012 |  9:11 am

Three men have been arrested and a fourth is being sought by the FBI in connection with what investigators say was a $1.5-million Texas-based scheme to illegally market and sell stem cell treatments to patients with terminal diseases.

"Protecting the public from unproven and potentially dangerous drug and medical procedures is very important," said Kenneth Magidson, U.S. attorney for the Houston-based southern district of Texas, in an online statement. "This office will continue to prosecute violations involving threats to the public health."

The men were arrested over the last 10 days based on two indictments issued in November charging all four with 39 counts of mail fraud and unlawfully manufacturing, distributing and selling stem cells and stem cell procedures not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, according to the statement.

“This indictment demonstrates the commitment of the FDA to protect the American public from the harms inherent in being exposed to unapproved new drugs,” said Patrick J. Holland, special agent in charge of the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, according to the statement. “The FDA will continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators of such acts and ensure that they are punished to the full extent of the law.”

One of the four, Vincent Dammai, 40, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., was a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina who allegedly used university facilities to create stem cells without obtaining permission from the FDA.

Another, Francisco Morales, 52, of Brownsville, Texas, is charged with falsely claiming to be a medical doctor who operated a Brownsville clinic specializing in using stem cells to treat "incurable diseases." From 2007 into 2010, the statement said, Morales took patients across the border into Mexico for stem cell treatments that had not been reviewed or approved by the FDA.

Also charged is Alberto Ramon, 48, of Del Rio, Texas, a licensed midwife who allegedly obtained umbilical cord blood to create stem cells from his patients at a local maternity clinic. The blood was sold to a company in Scottsdale, Ariz., which then sent the tissue to Dammai, according to the statement.

A warrant has been issued for the arrest of a fourth man, Lawrence Stowe, 58, of Dallas. The indictment charges that Stowe, who sometimes referred to himself as "Dr. Larry Stowe," "marketed, promoted, and sold stem cells" for the treatment of several diseases through front companies, including the nonprofit Stowe Foundation, apparently founded in 2003.

On the foundation’s website, Stowe is pictured and described as a “dedicated scientist and tireless researcher… an expert of international respect in the science and technology of comprehensive immune therapy” who received a doctoral degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois, worked at Mobil Oil Research and Development and continues to work as an international consultant.

“He, his staff and research associates, equally talented and dedicated specialists and medical technology professionals, have long been involved in development of adult stem cell transplants for Regenerative Medicine, cancer vaccines, biologic response modifiers and therapeutic energy technologies, as well as the comprehensive protocols for treating autoimmune diseases,” the website says, adding that Stowe, “has led the way in validating the power of the immune system to heal the body and bring the science of immune therapy to the forefront of medical practice.”

When CBS' "60 Minutes" profiled Stowe in 2010, it interviewed a patient who said Stowe told him his stem cell therapy could cure him of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. There is no known cure for the disease.

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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston

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