A Skin-tilating tale?

Posted: June 26, 2014

THE HEADLINES, here and overseas, were the kind a loudmouthed newsboy would've made a fortune off of a century ago: MAN STEALS HUMAN SKIN!

And when most people saw those headlines, about a married father of two from Delaware County named Gary Dudek, their minds were immediately transported to the ghastly lair that skin-suit-seamster Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb called home in "Silence of the Lambs."

But Dudek's story isn't as simple - or creepy - as it first seemed, his lawyers and others contend.

(Well, OK. Maybe it is a little creepy.)

Authorities last month accused the 54-year-old of stealing $357,000 worth of regenerative medicine products from Mercy Philadelphia Hospital.

Dudek had access to the items, and the hospital, because he worked for Organogenesis, the Massachusetts-based company that manufactures the products.

Media accounts repeatedly described the products as skin grafts, which naturally triggered a host of uneasy questions.

* Were the supposed grafts being resold on a medical black market?

* Had other area hospitals been robbed as well?

* Was Dudek involved in some sort of larger, sinister scheme?

The answer to all three is a resounding "no," said Dudek's attorney, Eugene Tinari.

"Look, this is not anything that would generate headlines like something out of a horror movie," he said.

"I'm not admitting anything, but whatever happened - be it criminal, be it negligence, be it an employer-employee misunderstanding - there was not some type of nefarious [sale] of these items on a black market.

"As far as what he did with them, I can tell you that nothing was done that you would consider to be similar to Hannibal Lecter," Tinari said.

Dudek worked for Organogenesis from September 2006 to September 2013.

As a "tissue regeneration specialist," or sales representative, he was tasked with selling doctors and health-care providers on the company's chief products - which, in fact, are not skin grafts.

Organogenesis extracts two types of skin cells, keratinocytes and fibroblasts, from donated foreskin, said Angelyn Lowe, the company's spokeswoman.

The company has received 13 donations of foreskin that was discarded in routine circumcisions, she said.

In a process that takes about three weeks, Organogenesis grows millions of new cells - enough to cover a football field - that ultimately result in their two products, Apligraf and Dermagraft.

The products are used only to treat diabetic foot ulcers and venous leg ulcers, the kinds of festering wounds that often result in patients losing limbs or living in debilitating pain.

"Our product doesn't replace skin," Lowe said. "If it's placed on a wound that's been unresponsive to other treatment, it stimulates the body's own skin cells to start growing again."

Lowe said the products are FDA-approved, and regulated by the American Association of Tissue Banks.

It's unclear if the company had prior problems with Dudek; Lowe said she was not allowed to discuss him or the pending criminal case.

Dudek worked with Mercy Hospital, at 54th Street and Cedar Avenue in West Philly.

It was there that police say he took advantage of an arrangement that allowed him to refill orders for Apligraf and Dermagraft on the hospital's behalf.

Between November 2011 and July 2013, Dudek allegedly ordered and stole 219 units of the hockey puck-size products, said Lt. John Walker of Southwest Detectives.

The hospital needed only about three units on hand at any given time.

Mercy officials realized something was wrong while performing a routine audit of their vendors, said hospital spokeswoman Bernice Ho.

"Once we found out there was something awry, we alerted the authorities immediately," she said.

Walker said investigators found surveillance footage that showed Dudek loading the products into his car on at least two occasions.

"He was most likely destroying them," Walker said, "but kept the orders going to get his commission from his company."

Ho said the alleged thefts had no direct impact on Mercy's patients, but noted the hospital's wound-care center attends to diabetic patients every day.

When Dudek was arrested on May 26, the case made headlines around the world.

"How many other kinds of human samples, such as stem cells, adipose, blood and others, go missing each year?" Paul Knoepfler, an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, wrote in a blog post shortly after reading about Dudek's arrest.

Howard Nathan, the president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Gift of Life Donor Program, said it's understandable that some people had questions after reading about Dudek's case.

But most recognize that the organ and tissue donation industry is well-regulated, he said.

"The public gets the fact that the system does work," Nathan said. "Most people nowadays know someone who needs an organ donation or has received one."

Walker said it's unlikely that Dudek even attempted to resell the products he allegedly stole. The items have a short shelf life, and carry identifying serial numbers.

On Facebook, Dudek appears to be a middle-age guy who has everything: nice house in Wallingford, wife and two kids, plenty of smiling faces and school activities.

Now he faces a preliminary hearing in Municipal Court on Aug. 8.

"He's nothing but a hardworking individual who cares about making sure his family is taken care of," said Tinari, the attorney.

"If something did happen here, he would take full responsibility and endeavor to make restitution."

On Twitter: @dgambacorta

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