The US Department of Justice says Vincent Dammai, a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, supplied the stem cells without the approval of his university or of the US Food and Drug Administration. Two other men, Francisco Morales of Brownsville, Texas, and Alberto Ramon, of Del Rio, Texas, were also arrested this week as part of the case. A fourth man, Lawrence Stowe of Dallas, Texas, has been charged and a warrant is out for his arrest, according to an FBI press release.
Many academic scientists have spoken out against unproven stem cell therapies (see Stem-cell scientists grapple with clinic). However, a 2011 opinion paper by Zubin Master, of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, and David Resnik, of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, contends that many private stem cell clinics rely on scientists in the field who unknowingly supply cell lines, growth media and other reagents needed to harness stem cells.
Master believes this is the first case in the US where a researcher has been charged with supplying stem cell clinics. He contends that “responsible scientists can curb illegitimate stem cell tourism by evaluating and sharing stem cells and other reagents only with those who intend to use them appropriately.”
In the case, the FBI release says: “Morales and the others manufactured, distributed and used stem cells produced from umbilical cord blood to perform procedures not approved by the FDA to treat persons suffering from cancer, amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS) and other autoimmune diseases.”
According to a 19-page indictment unsealed this week, Ramon, a licensed midwife, obtained umbilical cord blood from mothers who had given birth. He then sold the blood to a Scottsdale, Arizona company called Global Laboratories, whose owner was convicted in August of selling unauthorized stem cell products across state lines (see Texas prepares to fight for stem cells). Global Laboratories sent the tissue to Dammai, who used university facilities to derive cord blood stem cells and then sent the cells back to Global.
The indictment says that Morales falsely claimed he was a doctor, touting the benefits of stem cell treatments to patients. He would then travel to Mexico to perform stem cell procedures. Morales, Dammai and the other defendants made more than $1.5 million from patients, according to the FBI release.
According to his university web page, Dammai has been an assistant professor at MUSC since 2007. He was the principal investigator on a $1.4 million, five-year R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to study the cellular basis of renal cell carcinoma that ended this year.
Dammai could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for MUSC, Heather M. Woolwine, indicated in a written statement that Dammai has been placed on administrative leave, pending resolution of the case. The university did not know about stem cell work alleged in the indictment, and it has cooperated in the federal investigation.