Prison cell, that is.

One of the more sordid characters in the sordid world of stem cell pseudomedicine, Frank Morales, who was known to many of his patients as “Dr. Frank,” was arrested over the holiday season, and a warrant was issued for his partner in crime, Larry Stowe. Both men posed as licensed physicians in an attempt to bilk seriously ill patients out of tens of thousands of dollars, a scheme that apparently netted him and his co-conspirators $1.5 million. The case has been attracting widespread media attention for a number of reasons. First, Stowe and Morales were previously outed as frauds in spectacular fashion by the investigative program 60 Minutes last year. The show featured a hidden camera segment in which Stowe made numerous false statements to an ALS patient, after which he and Morales were confronted by a CBS reporter. While Stowe stoically tried to justify the scam, Morales all but gnawed off a leg in his efforts to squirm out from under the spotlight.

Justice catches up with Morales
A second interesting element of the case is the fact that one of Morales’ collaborators, Vincent Dammai, was working in academia, at the Medical University of South Carolina, while he processed cells for unapproved clinical uses. This appears to have been coordinated by Fredda Branyon, who was arrested on related charges last summer. A recent commentary by Zubin Master and David Resnick called for responsible scientists to take a more cautious approach when sharing cell resources, due to the risk of inappropriate uses by stem cell scammers like Morales. But in this case, it seems Dammai was more willing accomplice than unwitting dupe. The defendants have yet to go to trial, and I’ll be very curious to see if the FBI’s dragnet hauls in any more charlatans. This certainly isn’t the only case out there of an academic with overt ties to a “stem cell tourism” outfit… 

Morales’ arrest puts a period to a long and inglorious career in medical pretense. Besides stem cells, he also styled himself as a guru of such far-out modalities as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, chelation, and photodynamic therapy, and his sole medical degree was from a diploma mill in the Caribbean. He got on the wrong end of a class action suit, when he worked with Immunosyn (a biotech company that now appears to be out of business following SEC and other complaints) to defraud a multiple sclerosis patient by selling her vials that they claimed contained the experimental drug SF-109, but which actually contained the somewhat more ordinary molecule, H2O. 

Frank Morales was nothing if not a prolific collaborator, one who tended to gravitate toward the lowest common denominator in the fringe medical community. Besides Stowe, who remains a fugitive, Morales served as a go-to cell injector for David Steenblock, another purveyor of stem cell flim-flam, and co-authored a notorious work of speculative fiction/marketing bumpf that waved its arms furiously in postulating a role for stem cells in the treatment of autism (preferably at one of the Central American clinics operated at the time by the paper’s principal authors). 

2011 was a fateful year for amoral stem cell entrepreneurs, with numerous arrests, clinic closures, and critical investigations. Here’s hoping for more of the same in 2012.