MUSC pathologist among 4 accused in stem-cell trafficking scheme

Vincent Dammai

An MUSC pathologist was placed on administrative leave, and his lab and office locked, after university officials learned Wednesday that the professor was arrested by federal officials probing illegal trafficking of stem cells.

Dr. Vincent Dammai, 40, of Mount Pleasant, an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, was one of four men named in a 19-page, 15-count indictment unsealed this week in Texas.

The indictment names Dammai; Francisco "Dr. Frank" Morales, 52, of Brownsville, Texas; clinic owner and licensed midwife Alberto Ramon, 48, of Del Rio, Texas; and Lawrence Stowe, 58, of Dallas. They are accused of a scheme that marketed stem cells from women's umbilical cords and preyed on the hopes of patients with incurable diseases. The investigation began more than a year ago.

Dammai was arrested Tuesday in Florence and appeared in court in Charleston on Wednesday. Morales, 52, was arrested Dec. 22 in Brownsville, and Ramon arrested Tuesday in Del Rio. The U.S. Attorney's Office said Stowe is at large and considered a fugitive.

Treatments in Mexico

The indictment alleges the four distributed stem cells and other biological products without federal Food and Drug Administration approval, and for unapproved treatments of cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's Disease.

Court records unsealed Wednesday show that the scheme made more than $1.5 million in sales between January 2007 and April 2010, from procedures Morales performed in Mexico on patients he met in the United States.

Dammai faces conspiracy charges. The indictment charges Morales with wire fraud, mail fraud and introduction of an unapproved new drug, among other charges. Morales went Friday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald G. Morgan, who ordered him held without bond until U.S. Marshals take him to Houston, where the case is pending.

According to the indictments, birth mothers at the Maternity Care Clinic in Del Rio, owned by Ramon, were told their umbilical cords were being donated to a research facility. Morales posed as a doctor and researcher for Global Laboratories LLC, in Scottsdale, Ariz., and bought umbilical cords and placentas from the clinic. He shipped the purchases to an Arizona lab and then to Dammai for harvesting of stem cells, according to the indictment.

The Brownsville Herald reported Dammai is accused of harvesting stem cells from umbilical cords Ramon gathered at his clinic and sold to Morales. According to the indictment, Dammai worked as a consultant for Global Laboratories, and without FDA or university approvals, prepared stem cells for Morales using MUSC's facilities.

Stowe, who operated The Stowe Foundation and Stowe Biotherapy Inc., allegedly marketed and sold the stem cells and other biological products.

According to the National Institutes on Health, stem cells are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves, and as such, hold the promise of repairing or replacing worn-out or damaged tissue. But the research is in its infancy, and the FDA has not approved any stem-cell therapies. FBI Special Agent in Charge Cory B. Nelson told the Houston News that the investigation "identified a scheme whereby the suffering and hopes of victims in extreme medical need were used and manipulated for personal profit. The predatory and opportunistic nature of the crimes alleged in this indictment mirrors images from science fiction."

MUSC's statement

In a Wednesday night statement, MUSC said federal authorities made the university aware of an investigation regarding Dammai last year, and MUSC "has fully cooperated in the agency's investigation."

The statement said MUSC "placed Dr. Dammai on administrative leave pending the resolution of the matter. His laboratory and office have been locked and secured. The federal authorities have stated that the alleged stem-cell work was conducted without the knowledge of the Medical University, and they have made no allegations of any inappropriate activity on the part of the University or any of its representatives."

In August, MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine said federal investigators contacted the school in 2010 regarding a federal probe "into activities that may have involved one of our faculty members."

MUSC conducted an internal review audit involving the professor but declined to provide the audit's findings.

This summer, an Arizona doctor facing federal criminal charges in connection with selling human stem cells for unapproved medical treatments paid an MUSC professor to help her, according to court documents. In August, MUSC refused to identify the professor, who was identified in court documents at the time only by his initials.

Fredda Branyon, 57, of Scottsdale, Ariz., pleaded guilty to selling stem cells made from umbilical cord and cord blood tissue for "non-research purposes" and without FDA approval, according to the plea agreement filed Aug. 18 in U.S. District Court in Houston.

Branyon allegedly sold the stem cells for $300,000 to a Texas health care worker, who used them to perform medical procedures on patients with Lou Gehrig's disease, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases.

Branyon, who had "no formal training" making stem cells, hired the MUSC professor to help her, according to the plea agreement.

Between April 2009 and February 2010, Global Laboratories, Branyon's company, sold more than 180 vials of stems cells to the unidentified Brownsville, Texas, health care worker, and during that time, Branyon bought umbilical cords from a Del Rio birthing facility, according to the plea agreement.