Page last updated at 10:13 GMT, Wednesday, 29 September 2010 11:13 UK

The doctor who preyed on the vulnerable

Watch Susan Watts' report in full

A doctor who carried out controversial stem cell treatments has been struck off by the General Medical Council. Newsnight science editor Susan Watts, whose investigation sparked the case, reports on the impact on patients.

Most of the families we met had paid about £10,000 - sometimes more. Many were friends and family of multiple sclerosis (MS) patients.

Conventional medicine had helped as far as it could. They'd read about other sufferers who had apparently got out of their wheelchairs and walked, regained movement or flexibility - or just a little spark of their old personality.

So they gave up their pension money, re-mortgaged homes or organised fundraisers in their local community, because Dr Robert Trossel and his stem cells were their last hope of finding a cure.

'Exploitative of patients'

But instead of offering hope, the General Medical Council (GMC) found the Dutch-trained doctor had actually treated patients with stem cells not designed for human use and that he had breached many of the essential tenets of "good medical practice".

Stem cells
Dr Trossel treated patients with stem cells not intended for human use

They also said he had exaggerated the benefits of the treatment, and overstated his success rate in treating patients with MS, and concluded that his treatment was "exploitative of a vulnerable patient" and "an abuse of his position as a doctor".

As a result, Dr Trossel, whose stem cell practice was strictly limited by the GMC in 2007 and also has a conviction for breaching the law on stem cell treatments in Belgium, has now received the ultimate sanction - the loss of his UK medical licence.

The GMC began looking into Dr Trossel's case after a Newsnight investigation broadcast in 2006.

It just disgusts me that he did what he did, and took advantage of vulnerable people
MS patient Karen Galley

Our report had a significant impact on Andrew Sandford, whose wife Debbie was diagnosed with MS in 2001. She has the most severe form, and requires 24-hour care.

Mr Sandford had read about internet-based Advanced Cell Therapeutics (ACT), which was recommended by glowing testimonials, some in the New Pathways magazine for MS sufferers. He then handed over £12,500.

What he, and scores of others like him, hadn't appreciated was that stem cell science is still largely at the research stage and most treatments are still unproven.

Because it's illegal to carry out stem cell injections in the UK, ACT booked Mrs Sandford into Dr Trossel's clinic in Rotterdam. But, just days before they were due to fly, a relative happened to watch Newsnight's investigation.

US connection

In our original film we revealed that ACT was run by a couple based in South Africa, wanted by the FBI for stem cell fraud while operating under the guise of another web-based company called Biomark. Their extradition proceedings have resumed this week in South Africa.

Andrew Sandford
He has abused his position of trust, preyed on people that only live on the hope that one day a cure will come
Andrew Sandford
Husband of MS patient

The film also showed that the stem cells ACT had sent to Dr Trossel were from a company called AllCells in the US, and intended only for research purposes - not for human use.

After confirming that the stem cells Dr Trossel had intended to inject into Mrs Sandford were indeed the AllCells research material, Mr and Mrs Sandford decided not to go ahead with the treatment.

Four years later, Mr Sandford recalls being shocked when he found out what was going on.

"My feelings have not changed," he says. "He has abused his position of trust, preyed on people that only live on the hope that one day a cure will come. He disgusts me. His only concern about well being was how much money he could make."

Another of those who hoped Dr Trossel would be able to help was Steve Murphy. The 42-year-old from Manchester, who was diagnosed with MS in 2000, also saw Newsnight's report in 2006.

Mr Murphy had fallen ill straight after his Rotterdam injections and was hospitalised, though no firm link has been established between the two.

It emerged during the GMC hearing that not only had Dr Trossel injected Mr Murphy with stem cells from ACT, but also with what he called RNA, to "guide" the stem cells to where they were needed.

This material is known as Regeneresen cell therapy and contained bovine brain and spinal cord material. It appears to be an approach not recognised by mainstream stem cell science.

The GMC panel concluded that in Mr Murphy's case - and for three of the other patients they heard from - Dr Trossel failed to obtain proper consent because he didn't tell them what was in this injection.

'Trusted him'

Mr Murphy admits to being angry with himself for being taken in by ACT, but he is also angry with Dr Trossel.

"In his testimony, Dr Trossel admitted using these substances but claimed it was 'worth a try' to inject MS sufferers with them," he says. "The GMC didn't agree, and brought this case.

He exploited them [patients] and that's unacceptable
Simon Gillespie
Multiple Sclerosis Society

"The result is a Dr Trossel without a medical licence and I think that was worth a try - not only from my point of view, but for all who may have trusted his apparent medical legitimacy."

The GMC hearing also heard from MS sufferer Karen Galley, from Essex. She too had been injected with the Regeneresen material.

"I feel angry, let down... and I hate him," she says. "It just disgusts me that he did what he did, and took advantage of vulnerable people. The word 'doctor' I can't associate with him. It's an insult to the medical profession."

In his defence, Dr Trossel told the hearing that following the Newsnight investigation he severed his links with ACT, and that the batch of stem cells Newsnight filmed was a defective supply from ACT. But he did admit he was supplying stem cells to patients from his own source too, though would not identify it to us.

Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, warns patients against pursuing treatments via faceless companies on the internet, and condemns Dr Trossel's actions.

"He broke that fundamental bond of trust and confidence that anyone has the right to expect in any doctor who's treating them. We think that's totally reprehensible," he says.

"Many people with MS are desperate to improve their condition and in this respect they can be very vulnerable to people exploiting them. He exploited them and that's unacceptable."

Now that Dr Trossel no longer has a licence, his former patients say they are beginning a new fight to get their money back.

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