HUMAN tissue samples may have been used in unauthorised scientific experiments at a Newcastle hospital, it was revealed last night.
Fears have emerged after clinical scientist Dr Morteza Pourfarzam was struck off by the Health and Care Professional Council for a “deliberate, sophisticated and dishonest acts of theft” from Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals’ NHS Trust between 2004 and 2008.
At his disciplinary hearing, it emerged the rogue scientist worked for the Trust but was secretly freelancing for other private organisations abroad and putting the money earned – up to £200,000 – into a bank account only he had access to.
To cover up his deceit, he sent medical samples to overseas companies by Royal Mail, rather than using accepted practices for transferring medical materials.
It is thought those samples may have been human – either in the form of blood, saliva or tissues – or from animals.
But because the Trust has not been prepared to comment on the matter it is not known exactly what the samples were, where they were obtained from, where they were sent to, or for what purpose.
Newcastle East MP Nick Brown has called for the matter to be investigated by the police, describing the doctor’s actions as “unethical” and “unacceptable”.
The disciplinary council’s panel sitting in London heard how the doctor, once described as “seminal” for his groundbreaking research in the early 2000s into the detection of metabolic disorders in children, deposited the money he made from his work for overseas companies into a bank account only he had access to. The theft was uncovered when the Trust discovered two cheques between February and August 2008 from “external third parties” made out to Newcastle University’s former Spence Biomedical Genetics Unit, a unit that ceased to operate in 2004.
Dr Pourfarzam is known to have carried out research into the neonatal screening of babies with disorders relating to their metabolism, before he worked for the Trust between 2000 and 2001. But the nature of the work he was carrying out for external companies between 2004 and 2008 has not been released by the Trust.
Academic papers he published during those years include work on plasma and proteomics, the analysis of proteins in biological systems.
His laboratory is believed to have been at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, where part of the Department of Clinical Biochemistry is based.
The Panel report said: “Dr Pourfarzam gave evidence that he packaged the non-UK samples. He would take the packages to his local Post Office branch to send them. In the Panel’s view this unusual conduct demonstrated a need to hide his dishonest activities from the eyes of others at the Trust. The Panel also noted that Dr Pourfarzam had taken very little time off work. This gave very little opportunity for his private, unauthorised work to be discovered.”
He was found to be unable to answer questions on where the monies had gone and why he had not re-paid them.
In addition, when asked about any personal or financial link to a laboratory he used in Iran, where he now lives, in the Panel’s opinion, he started to give a convoluted answer involving work he was doing associated with Denmark.
Civil court judges have ordered Dr Pourfarzam to repay £106,907, although it was noted during the hearing the amount owed to the Trust and the University was about £200,000.
Panel chairman Ian Griffiths said: “The dishonest, deliberate theft of a large sum of money from his employer for his own financial personal gain by Mr Pourfarzam was extremely unprofessional behaviour and was conduct which is not expected from a registrant”.
The report said he had breached the trust of patients, colleagues and third parties who had put their trust in the service offered by Dr Pourfarzam within the Genetics Unit. It stated he had removed and kept NHS money “inevitably earmarked for patient care”.
The panel noted there were no questions raised about Dr Pourfarzam’s excellent and high standards of academic and clinical competence.
Last night the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals’ NHS Foundation Trust refused to answer questions on what the samples were.
A statement from the Trust said: “We are aware of the outcome of the Health and Care Professions’ Council hearing regarding Morteza Pourfarzam.
“The Trust strives to ensure responsible use of public money to benefit patient care. It considered this issue to be very serious, and carried out a thorough investigation which resulted in Dr Pourfarzam leaving the organisation.
“The Trust has a duty to report such matters to the relevant professional bodies, for independent review, which in this case resulted in the ultimate sanction being applied. It is also pursuing a joint civil action with the Newcastle University.”
Newcastle East MP Nick Brown is calling on the police to investigate the case.
He said: “What he has done is completely unethical and unacceptable. Of course samples should not have been sent through the post. It’s for the police to investigate whether a criminal case has been committed but as far as I can see there’s cause for concern and it does warrant being looked at by the police.”
Newcastle University confirmed Dr Pourfarzam was employed in the former Department of Child Health during from 1996 to 2004.
The Department of Child Health and the Spence Biomedical Genetics Unit, which he helped set up, ceased to exist in 2004 and was integrated into the Clinical Biochemistry Department at the Trust.
Dr Pourfarzam, who now works as a clinical scientist at an Iranian university, appeared in person during the four-day hearing, which ended on November 29.