Former runway-model Laura Brown and her husband Stephen van Rooyen are still fighting extradition from South Africa, for an alleged scam to provide a stem cell "cure" for neurological diseases. But one doctor who worked with them wasn't so lucky.
British doctor Robert Trossel was struck from the medical registry yesterday, and thus banned from practicing medicine, for his role in an alleged scheme that has had Brown and van Rooyen (pictured above) on the run from the U.S. authorities since they were indicted in 2006. Like other doctors who worked with Brown and van Rooyen, the panel said Trossel made outlandish, unsusbantiated claims about the effectiveness of injections of stem cells in the treatment of multiple sclerosis and other diseases, and overstated his success in treating these patients.
But the panel said Trossel also provided a bizarre additional treatment, called Aqua Tilis therapy (AQT), which involved "antioxidant steam" and "magnetic fields generators." And in the case of at least four patients, the stem cells he injected them with included "material containing bovine brain and spinal cord live cells."
Trossel is one of many doctors who were associated with Brown and van Rooyen, who operated a company in Atlanta called first BioMark International and later Advanced Cell Therapeutics. Here's a screenshot of one of their websites, via a 2007 Wired article:
A 2005 article about their alleged schemes, from the Los Angeles Times [via HealthBlog], is absolutely heartbreaking. It describes how one sufferer from ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease, spent thousands of dollars and wasted his last two years of life chasing this phantom cure. BioMark tried to take advantage of a legal loophole that allows doctors to provide untested treatments to patients with incurable, fatal diseases, and made completely unfounded claims about their treatment. From the Times article:
The therapy, as advertised, was simple: an injection of 1.5 million stem cells in the abdomen. Everybody got the same type of cells, regardless of their disease. "Once in the body, cells migrate to the site of the disease and begin producing the needed cells," explained a BioMark information packet.
The company charged around $21,000 for the injection of cells, which cost about $1,000. And they had a scientific advisory board (most of whose members had no idea they were on the board.) Brown told the Times in a 2004 interview, "When something this powerful, this beautiful, is laid in your hands, in your path, you give everything you have to it." Even after they fled the U.S., they kept providing the treatments in Tijuana and Rotterdam (which is where Dr. Trossel got involved.)
The defendants, LAURA BROWN and STEPHEN VAN ROOYEN, recruited customers with the representation that science had proven the therapeutic power of stem cells and that BIOMARK was simply making it available to the world . The BIOMARK website stated that "[a]11 ALS research now cites the promise of Stem Cells as the only answer ."... The defendants, LAURA BROWN and STEPHEN VAN ROOYEN, obtained the cells from blood banks, which shipped the cells from locations in Texas and elsewhere to BIOMARK in Florida . BIOMARK shipped the cells from Florida to their customers' homes or to the offices of medical practitioners in various localities who would perform the injections for BIOMARK customers. BIOMARK's stem cells were distributed in vials, which the defendants, LAURA BROWN and STEPHEN VAN ROOYEN, caused to be labeled as containing 1 .5 million stem cells.
According to a 2007 article by ABC News, Brown and van Rooyen (who were on the FBI most wanted list at one point) are living in Johannesburg. South Africa does have an extradition treaty with the U.S., but Brown and van Rooyen's attorneys claimed that because the treaty doesn't bear the proper signature from South African President Thabo Mbeki, it's invalid. They blamed the Bush administration's opposition to stem cell research for all of their problems. Said van Rooyen in an interview:
"We were set up in the most horrible, vindictive manner... The Bush administration supports the pharmaceutical industry, which wants smaller would-be contenders in the multibillion dollar stem cell arena to be put out of business."
Photos of Laura Brown and Stephen van Rooyen by Gallo Images/Getty Images.