An unlicensed Las Vegas doctor who allegedly duped chronically ill patients into paying him for an illegal procedure -- implanting stem cells in their bodies with promises to cure irreversible diseases -- faces fines and as many as 20 years in prison.
A yearlong investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations led to Alfred T. Sapse's arrest last week and indictment on seven counts of mail fraud, 13 counts of wire fraud, a $250,000 fine on each count, and forfeiture of money or property up to $913,748, if convicted.
The 84-year-old Sapse reportedly convinced more than 130 sick patients to undergo unorthodox surgical procedures while also stringing along investors. According to the complaint, he drummed up $1 million by claiming to have pioneered a revolutionary medical procedure for multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and other incurable diseases using stem cells.
Sapse claimed he was a retired foreign physician who studied at a prestigious tissue therapy clinic in Ukraine. "This was false, as defendant Sapse well knew, as he had never studied at, attended, or maintained any relationship with the Filatov Institute," the indictment states, referring to the clinic.
And, according to the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners, Sapse has never been licensed to practice medicine, making his procedures a criminal offense, says Douglas Cooper, executive director of the board. Despite this, in 2005 Sapse created a company called Stem Cell Pharma Inc.
Its web site notes that stem cells can repair and rebuild practically all organs in the human body and cure diseases such as Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's disease, cerebral palsy, lupus, Duchenne's muscular atrophy, as well as hearing and vision loss.
To obtain those cells, Sapse allegedly coordinated a supply chain by arranging for doctors and nurses to obtain human placentas from a local hospital, then surgically implanting tissue from them in patients. This procedure is not approved by the FDA, but Sapse claimed he had discovered a "proprietary" and novel technique to extract stem cells from the placentas and to induce them to replicate. At one time, the indictment states, he even hired a Las Vegas pediatrician with no prior stem cell training to carry out implant procedures in Sapse's apartment.
To perpetuate the fraud, Sapse created and controlled several other web sites where he allegedly issued a number of press releases to uphold the impression he was a medical innovator.
Among Sapse's more outrageous claims: That his procedure would "revolutionize medicine as it is known today," and promising wheelchair-bound patients they would "definitely walk again." His web site also identifies him as an assistant professor of ophthalmology at University Eye Clinic in Geneva, Switzerland, and as a post-doctoral and research assistant at the bacteriology department at University of California, Los Angeles.
Sapse or his representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2007, under pressure from FDA regulators, Sapse relocated to Mexico, where he hired a local physician to perform surgeries. For his efforts, he allegedly received almost $1 million from patients and investors, and spent about $700,000 on personal expenses and gambling at local casinos.
Sapse, who the Las Vegas Review-Journal identified in 1997 as a Romanian-born immunologist, has been at the center of a number of lawsuits over the years. In one, the plaintiff tried to reclaim money he invested in Sapse's operation based on his claim that a California company had pledged $25 million for an anti-AIDS drug he had invented. In another, Sapse himself sued, accusing a defendant of causing the death of his wife, though she was alive at the time.
Sapse was released after the arraignment on a personal recognizance bond, ordered to take down his web sites within 10 days and was barred from working in the medical field while awaiting trial. The trial has been scheduled for Sept. 20.
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