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Oncologist gave patients foreign cancer drugs

fdaCopyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

For nearly two years, Deming oncologist Mohamed Aswad treated cancer patients with chemotherapy drugs that weren’t approved for use in the United States.

He later conceded the packaging inserts on how to administer the drugs were hardly adequate – they were printed in Turkish.

The price Aswad paid for the drugs was significantly less than U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs bearing the same brand or generic name, but he is accused of billing Medicaid and Medicare for the medications as if they were purchased at the higher price in the U.S.

By the time the feds caught up with Aswad, he had personally profited $2 million or more, a state Medical Board complaint alleges.

Misbranded non-FDA-approved drugs carry “the significant, unreasonable risk that the safety and efficacy of the drugs will be inferior to FDA-approved drugs,” according to the complaint.

The Medical Board on Nov. 14 ordered an immediate suspension of Aswad’s New Mexico medical license, contending he “posed a clear and immediate danger to the public health and safety” by continuing to practice medicine.

It’s not clear what happened to the patients who received the “misbranded” cancer drugs and whether their outcomes were worse than had they received U.S. equivalents.

Details could emerge at a Dec. 1 disciplinary hearing on the fate of Aswad’s medical practice in New Mexico.

“We believe that the Medical Board decision was wrong and we’re going to fight it,” said his Albuquerque attorney, Molly Schmidt Nowara, on Thursday. “He’s an excellent doctor who is beloved by his patients.”

The Medical Board allegations against Aswad include: gross negligence; conduct likely to deceive, defraud or harm the public; and making “false or misleading statements regarding the efficacy or value of the treatment administered.”

Guilty plea

A graduate of the University of Aleppo in Syria in 1991, Aswad has been licensed in New Mexico since 2003 and is the only oncologist in the southwestern New Mexico city of Deming. He has operated a clinic there since 2007.

Earlier this month, Aswad pleaded guilty in federal court in Las Cruces to a misdemeanor charge of unlawful introduction of misbranded drugs into interstate commerce.

Aswad’s case is one of at least 10 prosecutions this year related to Turkish cancer drugs sold illegally in the United States.

The FDA earlier this year brought charges in the Eastern District of Missouri against a Turkish drug wholesaler for smuggling misbranded cancer treatment drugs into the U.S. That investigation is related to eight other prosecutions in Missouri.

Aswad, in New Mexico federal court documents, stated he ordered his drugs by calling a 1-866 number and thought he was ordering from a U.S. company. He said he later learned it was a Canadian online firm.

Under the plea agreement, Aswad must serve three years probation, forfeit $750,000, and pay nearly $1.3 million in restitution.

Of that, $1.27 million is to go to the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services and nearly $21,000 to United Healthcare Military & Veterans.

The Medical Board complaint charges that Aswad “knowingly purchased misbranded non-FDA approved chemotherapy drugs” and didn’t inform patients they were being treated with them.

The complaint states that “numerous cancer patients” received the foreign drugs, which included the injectable Altuzan, which in the United States is called Avastin. Avastin is used to treat cancers of the colon, lung, kidney and brain.