BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian police have detained four people on suspicion of carrying out illegal, untested stem cell treatments using embryos or aborted fetuses at a Hungarian private clinic, police said in a statement.
The statement, posted on the official police website www.police.hu late on Tuesday, said two Hungarians, one U.S. and one Ukrainian citizen had been detained.
It said the suspects were detained as they were preparing to treat a new patient in a Budapest-based health institution.
Major Gabor Bucsek, who leads the police investigation, told Reuters later that 3 of the 4 suspects were detained in Budapest on July 27 and one Hungarian suspect was detained in a town in the countryside. He did not name the place.
Police said in the statement they had launched proceedings on “suspicion of a banned use of the human body.”
“There is well-founded suspicion that a U.S. citizen called Julliy B. has carried out stem cell treatments for money within the framework of a Hungarian stem cell research laboratory and a Hungarian-owned private clinic since 2007,” police said.
It was not clear what the nature of the treatment was.
Police did not name the detainees but said the Ukrainian suspect prepared the stem cell doses and patients generally paid $25,000 or 5 million Hungarian forints for a treatment.
Among the four people detained is Hungarian plastic surgeon Istvan Seffer who has a private clinic in the west of Hungary and who was co-owner of IRM Magyarorszag Zrt, a firm which used to have permission to carry out stem cell research, Seffer’s lawyer Peter Zamecsnik told Reuters.
Zamecsnik confirmed Seffer had been detained.
He said IRM used a laboratory of the clinic until IRM’s permission to do stem cell research was withdrawn last year.
“Seffer decided to quit the firm IRM ... and therefore he took steps to wind up IRM,” the lawyer said.
Hungarian website www.sonline.hu cited Seffer’s brother Tibor Seffer as saying at a news conference on Wednesday in Kaposvar, a town in western Hungary where the Seffer&Renner clinic is located:
“I believe my brother is innocent. He is a doctor and he did not do any activity which would be banned or illegal.”
The Budapest Municipal Court told national news agency MTI that it ordered the suspects to be taken into custody until the end of August. Suspects can appeal against this ruling and Zamecsnik told Reuters Seffer had already appealed.
Police said the suspects gained the stem cells from embryos or aborted fetuses.
Bucsek said treatment was likely carried out on several patients.
“We assume in 8 cases, but there could be many more,” Bucsek said.
The doses had not been tested, and the suspects carried out the treatments without permission from Hungary’s health authorities, police said in the statement.
Police carried out house searches and seized computers and documents.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research said in a report released in December that it was “very concerned” that stem cell therapies are being sold around the world before they have been proven safe and effective.
The group of stem cell experts also released guidelines for researchers and regulators and a guidebook for patients without naming any specific clinic.
Hungary’s Health Ministry issued a brief statement on Wednesday saying that at the moment no institution in the country had permission to carry out human stem cell research.
“Nowhere in the world is this used as therapy and on a regular basis, there are only tests and research,” it added.
It said only Hungary’s Healthcare Scientific Council has the authority to issue permission to conduct stem cell research.
“Research cannot be conducted without permission,” the ministry said, without giving more details.
Stem cells are the body’s ‘master cells’, the source of all cells and tissue, including brain, blood, heart, bones and muscles. Embryonic stem cells come from days-old embryos and can produce any type of cell in the body.
Scientists generally harvest embryonic stem cells from embryos left over after in vitro fertilization attempts at fertility clinics.
Reporting by Krisztina Than; editing by Sonya Hepinstall