(CN) — Benedict Liao, an 81-year-old Southern California doctor, has been convicted of 26 felony charges relating to the sale of an unapproved cancer drug.
Allesgen, a product of Liao's own invention, was made from bromeliad, a pineapple extract. Liao promoted Allesgen as a cure for cancer, both cheaper and more effective than chemotherapy. But the drug was untested and unlicensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Liao had been repeatedly warned not to sell or market the product.
On Tuesday, a federal jury found Liao guilty of seven counts of wire fraud, 11 counts of selling a misbranded drug and eight counts of selling an unapproved drug.
Liao charged up to $2,000 a bottle for his cure, which he sold through the Oeyama-Moto Cancer Research Foundation. Its website — www.cancertreatmentus.org — promoted the drug with enthusiastic claims, according to an FDA warning letter, such as: “American Latest Invention . . . Allesgen Anti-cancer Drug to Cure the Advanced Cancer Patient,” and “Over 80 People Cured.” The site also claimed: “Passed US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Phase II human testing on January 14th, 2015.”
In fact, Liao had twice submitted an application to the FDA to hold clinical trials for Allesgen, in 2011 and 2012, filed under the alias “Masao Wada, M.D.” Oeyama-Moto’s website said Liao is also known as “Dr. Wada Masao II. The FDA rejected both applications, and put Allesgen on a “full clinical hold,” which meant that Liao was barred from selling or testing the product.
But Liao sold Allesgen anyway, to customers in the U.S. and abroad from July 2012 to January 2018. Federal prosecutors say that during that time, Liao took in at least $1.6 million in revenue. He never disclosed to his patients that the drug was not approved by the FDA or that he was not allowed to sell it.
Liao, who was born in Taiwan and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, testified at trial that he genuinely thought Allesgen could help people suffering from cancer.
“He wholeheartedly believed in the effectiveness of Allesgen,” said Dean Steward, Liao’s attorney.
There is no evidence that anyone suffered any sort of adverse reaction from taking Allesgen although, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Kole pointed out, patients may have forgone more traditional treatments prescribed to them and were put at risk as a result.
“The evidence showed [Liao] was deceiving patients in many ways,” said Kole, who prosecuted the case, “taking tens of thousands of dollars for a product that… another company was selling for only $36. That’s a 50-times markup. If he really wanted to help people, one would think he wouldn’t have charged them 50 times more.”
The FDA sent Liao at least three warning letters, the first in 2014, telling the doctor that his website was making false claims and that he was not allowed to promote Allesgen as a cure for anything, or indeed even as a “drug.” Liao was indicted in 2019.
Diane Bass was Liao’s attorney for more than two years, beginning in March 2019.
“He was an absolute true believer,” said Bass. “He really believed in the product — that it cured some cancers and that it shrank tumors.
“Unfortunately, he went about it in the wrong way. When I tried to tell him that, he wouldn’t have it. And that’s why he changed lawyers. He just needed his day in court, which he got.”
Liao remains free, and his sentencing is scheduled for February 2022. According to federal sentencing guidelines, he faces a maximum prison sentence of nearly 200 years. Sentences in wire fraud cases are often connected to the amount of money involved, though Liao is unlikely to do much time at all.
“He’s 81 years old and in horrible health,” said Steward, Liao’s current attorney, noting his client used an oxygen machine throughout his trial. “We hope to convince the judge that jail is not appropriate.”
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