The Municipal Court judge from Missouri was desperate.
Tim Donahoe was taking medications prescribed by his doctor, but his Parkinson’s disease was progressing at a frightening rate, robbing him of motor skills and forcing him to speak in a hoarse monotone.
It had been six years since he had been diagnosed, and Donahoe decided to learn what researchers around the world were finding promising in treatments for the incurable disorder of the central nervous system.
"I did what so many people do when they have diseases where there is no cure, where conventional treatments don’t seem to do much good," Donahoe said in a halting phone interview from his home in Cuba, Mo., a city of 3,000 people 80 miles west of St. Louis. "I really started using the Internet."
What looked most promising to Donahoe was what a Las Vegas doctor, Alfred Sapse, had to say about research involving stem cells. Researchers have long hoped to train the body’s raw materials on a large scale into becoming specific cells used to regenerate and repair diseased or damaged tissues in people.
Other researchers have found the practical use of stem cell therapies limited largely to bone grafting procedures and in treating leukemia and related blood and bone cancers.
But Sapse claims on his StemCell Pharma company website that he already had seen what no reputable scientific publication had reported — stem cells harvested from placentas successfully and regularly treating conditions that included Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and retinitis pigmentosa.
Donahoe got in touch with Sapse and was scheduled for an implant in November 2006. But after flying to Las Vegas, Donahoe said Sapse told him that the doctor who had been working with him — the man who had been procuring the placentas — decided to quit.
"So, Dr. Sapse rescheduled me to see a Mexican doctor," Donahoe said.
In the final analysis, the Missouri judge said, all the rescheduling did was delay his victimization in an elaborate fraud.
Donahoe’s experience sheds more light on the people involved in what federal prosecutors charge was an elaborate scheme by Sapse, prominent Las Vegas pediatrician Ralph Conti and a Mexican physician to defraud chronically ill patients and investors through the use of experimental stem cell implant procedures.
"There are con artists out there who know that desperate people will do desperate things and they take advantage of that," Donahoe said.
On Oct. 12, Conti was added in a fraud and conspiracy case first filed against Sapse in 2010. The indictment against the two men charges that they knew the procedures, which created infections in some patients, would not work.
Prosecutors have asked that Sapse and Conti forfeit nearly $1 million and whatever property they derived from the scheme to the federal government.
A Las Vegas woman, Deanna Wise, told the Review-Journal that Conti asked if he could have her placenta as she was sobbing and about to undergo a life-threatening delivery at St. Rose Dominican Hospital, Siena campus. Wise said she was stunned by the timing of the request but agreed to let him have the placenta when he said it was for research.
Prosecutors say Sapse hired Conti, who had no prior stem cell training, to perform the procedures that were not done under FDA guidelines. When Conti quit after 34 procedures, the indictment said, Sapse hired a Mexican doctor.
The Mexican physician, referred to in the government indictment as "Physician G," was not charged. According to the indictment, Physician G performed 100 implants at his office in Nuevo Progresso, Mexico, just across the border from Welasco, Texas.
SURGERY IN MEXICO
Donahoe said he came to trust Sapse more when Conti quit.
"He seemed upset that I wasn’t able to get my treatment, and he paid for my airfare to and from Missouri and my hotel room. That seemed like the right thing to do, and, besides, you don’t think an 80-year-old man who’s nice is a con man."
He knew the procedure probably wasn’t FDA approved, Donahoe said, but went ahead because he believes the federal agency is too slow in approving new treatments.
At Sapse’s direction, Donahoe said, he went to see Dr. Omar Gonzalez in Mexico for the first time in April 2007. Donahoe said Gonzalez used a local anesthetic on him so "small pouches" could be cut into both sides of his groin.
Then he said what were purported to be stem cells were implanted in both pouches.
"It only took a few minutes and didn’t hurt," said Donahoe, who described the operating room as dirty with an overflowing garbage can.
Almost immediately after the doctor made the implant, Donahoe said his voice and muscles felt better.
A few days afterward, however, his condition returned to what it had been.
"I know now (after talking with doctors) it was just the placebo effect," Donahoe said.
Nonetheless, Donahoe went back to Mexico for another implant in early 2008.
"I wanted it to work so bad," he said.
This time the implants were made behind his ears under local anesthetic. But these implants didn’t even give him a placebo effect.
"I knew something was wrong when people were getting implants in the same parts of the body for diseases that ranged from Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis to retinitis pigmentosa," Donahoe said.
One thing was definitely better the second time Donahoe went back to Mexico.
"His office was much nicer, very clean," he said. "He really seemed to have made some money."
Attempts to reach Gonzalez were unsuccessful. His website claims he is a world leader in stem cell therapy.
Now 57, Donahoe’s Parkinson’s disease has progressed to the point where he had to leave his full-time time job as an operations manager for a home health company. His job as a Municipal Court judge is a part-time position. The disability also caused him to have a car accident that cost him his driver’s license, he said.
Donahoe said he regrets raising funds in his hometown for his $7,000 stem cell implantation bill.
"When somebody helps you like that, you sure hate being duped," he said.
Sapse, 85, doesn’t think Donahoe was duped.
"It just didn’t work on him," Sapse said last week. "It’s worked on others. I’m a scientist that wants to help people, who is helping people."
Sapse, however, didn’t have any contact information for those on whom he said the treatments, which generally cost $5,000, have worked.
"One day I will find them," he said.
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at email@example.com or 702-387-2908.