An 86-year-old medical researcher charged with defrauding chronically ill patients in a stem cell implant scheme blamed the government Wednesday for the death of his wife.
After three hours of testimony, the Romanian-born Alfred Sapse told the jury in his federal trial that he believes the conduct of federal agents during a raid at his Las Vegas residence early in the investigation traumatized his 88-year-old wife, Renee, who was bedridden at the time.
Under questioning from his defense lawyer, Daniel Albregts, Sapse testified that federal agents threatened to have her removed from the residence if he failed to cooperate with investigators.
Sapse, speaking in a thick Romanian accent, said three days after the raid he found his wife outside on their balcony during a cold winter night, and she caught pneumonia and later died.
Sapse said he wrote a letter complaining about the couple's treatment to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which led the raid, but the agency never did anything about it.
His testimony followed a lengthy stint on the witness stand Monday and Tuesday by his co-defendant, Henderson pediatrician Ralph Conti, who has been practicing medicine here since 1990.
Sapse and Conti, 51, are facing conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud charges in the courtroom of Senior U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson. The trial is in its third week and will continue Monday with the cross-examination of Sapse.
In his testimony Wednesday, Sapse said he earned his medical degree in Romania and acknowledged he was not a licensed doctor in the United States.
He said he has spent most of his medical career as a researcher, and he took credit for developing the anti-aging drug Gerovital and getting it legalized in Nevada in the 1970s when the FDA wouldn't approve it.
His interest in stem cells evolved over his years of research, and he developed the implant procedure and promoted it on his website to give the chronically ill hope, Sapse testified.
The procedure, according to testimony during the trial, involved surgically implanting placental tissue in the abdomens of the patients with serious illnesses, including multiple sclerosis.
Sapse testified that the theory behind the procedure was to allow stem cells in the tissue to migrate to damaged areas of the body and repair them.
He acknowledged that he took risks not keeping the FDA in the loop about his procedure, but he added that he had clashed with the federal agency in the past and didn't think it would be supportive of his efforts.
"I knew what I was risking, and Dr. Conti knew what he was risking," Sapse said.
He added that he sought Conti's assistance because he "looked like he had an open mind."
Both Sapse and Conti testified that the procedure resulted in dramatic improvements in several of the ailing patients who received implants.
When pressed on cross-examination Tuesday, Conti admitted that he didn't consult stem cell researchers or any physicians, including his medical partners, about the viability of the novel procedure before he performed it on 30 patients Sapse sent him in 2006. The patients all had serious illnesses, including multiple sclerosis.
Conti also admitted he didn't test the placental tissue to see whether it actually contained stem cells and didn't do any tests on animals before performing the implant on human patients
On Wednesday, Conti admitted that he had no way of knowing for sure whether the placentas harvested for each procedure were kept in a sterile environment or whether the donor mothers had any infectious diseases.
Conti said he received some of the placentas from a trusted midwife.
The criminal case became public in July 2010 after federal authorities arrested Sapse and accused him of duping patients into undergoing the stem cell procedure.
Conti was charged months later.
The majority of the patients lived outside Nevada, and one came for treatment from as far away as South Africa. Some patients developed infections.
Contact Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-8135.