Alleged U.S. Stem Cell Fraudsters Shielded by South African Legal Logjam

A former American catwalk model and her South African husband, wanted by the FBI for allegedly administering fraudulent stem cell treatments, have so far managed to avoid being extradited from their current home in South Africa to the United States to face their charges.

A lengthy international investigation by U.S authorities against Laura Vanessa Brown, of Miami Beach, Fla., and Steven van Rooyen of Cape Town, culminated in a 51-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in Atlanta in March 2006. But by then Brown and van Rooyen were no longer in the United States.

In a number of interviews the couple maintains the science is real. They say they are not selling false hope, but rather making new science available to people who desparately need it.

Operating as BioMark International in Atlanta, Brown and Van Rooyen are charged with 51 counts of alleged fraud and the distribution of unapproved and misbranded drugs in the form of stem cell injections.

According to the Department of Justice, if convicted they could face a maximum 20-year prison sentence for fraud, plus three years per misbranding of drug count, and a fine of up to $1 million per count.

Tracked Down in Johannesburg

It has been almost a year since the couple were tracked down and arrested by Interpol at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, on their way to their home in the wealthy suburb of Llandudno in Cape Town. But instead of being extradited on an order requested by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the pair hired an expensive legal team to argue that the extradition treaty between America and South Africa is invalid because it was not correctly signed in South Africa. It doesn't bear the South African President Thabo Mbeki's signature.

Despite pressure from Mbeki to expedite the process, the extradition treaty matter is due to be decided by the Pretoria High Court on April 26, and will most likely have to proceed from there to the Constitutional Court -- a lengthy process in South Africa's overworked justice system -- before its validity can be determined. Only if the agreement is judged valid, can a separate hearing take place to decide on the merits of the crime and whether Brown and van Rooyen should in fact be extradited to face their charges.

To date, operating first as BioMark International and later as Advanced Cell Therapeutics (ACT), they've treated around 800 patients in America and the EU, charging up to $26,000 for each treatment (although the cells cost approximately $1000 per patient). The administering doctor earns 10 percent of the fee. And although it has been reported that a clinic in Rotterdam refused to continue working with ACT in October 2006 after a patient suffered an "acute allergic reaction" to the treatment, it is estimated that, before expenses, the company's income is about $18 million. It is also alleged that ACT is still offering treatments.

Science Versus Politics

Van Rooyen moved from Cape Town to Malibu in the late 1990s where he met Brown, an ex-model turned yoga teacher with an interest in healing and health. Brown's father introduced the couple to Mitchell Ghen, an Atlanta doctor who was offering stem cell treatments at $26,000 each to the critically ill.

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