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Fertility Scandal May Touch 30 More Patients : Medicine: UC Irvine officials say improper transfers date to 1988. Doctors’ lawyers blast ‘grandstanding.’

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

UC Irvine officials announced Wednesday that about 30 additional patients may have been involved in improper transplantations of eggs and embryos at a UC Irvine fertility clinic and a former affiliate in Garden Grove--a development that marks a dramatic expansion of the scandal’s scope.

The improper transfers from one woman to another, which allegedly occurred as early as 1988, were conducted without any of the patients’ consent and resulted in perhaps seven live births, university officials said.

Previous estimates were that as many as five improper transfers had occurred at the university.

UC Irvine, which since last September has been probing allegations of human egg misuse by three physicians at its Center for Reproductive Health, has come upon “credible evidence” in the last three weeks that approximately 30 more patients at two clinics may have been involved in unapproved transfers of eggs and embryos, said UC Irvine Executive Vice Chancellor Sidney H. Golub.

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The clinics were located at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange and Garden Grove Hospital and Medical Center, formerly known as AMI/Garden Grove Medical Center.

The announcement is the first indication the alleged improprieties at the Center for Reproductive Health were preceded by similar misconduct at the Garden Grove hospital and may have occurred as long as seven years ago. Two of the three UC Irvine physicians under investigation in the fertility scandal operated a fertility clinic there from 1986 to 1990.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” said one Orange County man who believes his sperm and his wife’s eggs were taken from them at the UC Irvine clinic in 1991 and implanted in another Orange County woman whose husband was infertile. The university has substantiated the allegation.

“You try not to think about it and then you wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning hoping it’s not true. . . . It’s grotesque and I think it was a regular, ongoing thing,” he said.

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Orange attorney Melanie Blum, who represents six clients who maintain that their eggs or embryos were misappropriated, said she believes one case involves one of her clients and resulted in the birth of a child to someone else. The woman visited the Garden Grove clinic in 1988, Blum said.

“This woman has no biological children of her own, so you can imagine what this means to her,” Blum said.

In addition to improper egg use, the three doctors--Ricardo H. Asch, Jose P. Balmaceda and Sergio Stone--are accused of misappropriation of funds, insurance fraud and research misconduct at the UC Irvine clinic. Asch is also accused of prescribing an unapproved fertility drug to some of his patients.

All three doctors have denied any wrongdoing.

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A spokeswoman for Garden Grove Hospital and Medical Center, where a clinic affiliated with UC Irvine operated until 1990, said Wednesday that a list of patients submitted to the hospital by the university Saturday suggested that 10 patients may have been victims of improper transfers.

“I am surprised and dismayed at the magnitude” of the crisis, Golub said Wednesday. “I’m heartsick for these patients.”

The Garden Grove clinic, run by Asch and Balmaceda, was relocated in March, 1990, to UC Irvine, where Stone joined the practice. Stone is not suspected of wrongdoing at Garden Grove but is under investigation for possible misconduct at UC Irvine, Golub said.

The scandal also has reached UC San Diego’s fertility clinic, where Asch was under contract until last month. Two former patients there have alleged that Asch misappropriated their eggs.

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Attorneys for all three doctors said they had not been informed of the new allegations and accused university officials of “grandstanding” to shift attention away from themselves.

“They say they are trying to ‘ascertain the truth,’ but knowing that truth has not yet been ascertained, they release a press release before they notify the physicians,” said Patrick Moore, Balmaceda’s attorney.

Ronald G. Brower, Asch’s attorney, said Asch was “shocked” to hear the new allegations.

“His position is still the same,” Brower said. “He doesn’t know what the source of the problem is, but he knows he has never knowingly used anyone’s eggs or embryos without permission.”

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Golub would not specify what new evidence of wrongdoing had emerged, saying only that it came partly in the form of documents and verbal information received by UC Irvine since mid-June. He declined to say who supplied the documents, insisting that the sources had requested anonymity.

He said the university sent word of its findings to the approximately 30 patients by hand-delivered letter over the July 4th holiday weekend. He said a team of counselors from its medical staff is arranging to meet with the patients privately to discuss their concerns.

Some patients, however, may not have been contacted yet because they are out of the country or could not be located, Golub said.

Garden Grove Hospital is cooperating in the investigation, and both medical centers are working with law enforcement agencies already probing the scandal, Golub said. At least seven investigations are under way, including probes by the UC Irvine police, the California Medical Board and the Orange County district attorney’s office.

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In response to the new information, Golub said, Irvine has reconvened a three-physician clinical panel that earlier this year discovered evidence of as many as five cases of improper transfers at the university. The panel has said its probe was impeded by the doctors’ refusal to turn over key documents.

Some state officials wondered if the scope of the scandal stretches beyond the 35 patients and three hospitals identified so far. Asch and Balmaceda perform fertility procedures in other countries, including Mexico, Italy and Argentina.

“I await the release of further information on this,” said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). “For all we know it’s far more than 30. People all around the country and the world have reason to be suspicious and worried.”

Added Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame): “It does bring us to the nadir of ethical transgressions and makes you wonder if this scandal will ever end.”

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Times staff writer Tracy Weber contributed to this story.


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