CHICAGO (CBS) — The number of clinics offering unproven stem cell injections is growing, despite FDA warnings and a federation of medical boards challenging state regulators to crack down on them.
Since CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman exposed the practices at a network of city and suburban clinics last November, more patients have complained to CBS and they are demanding government action.
John Zapfel, 65, is one of them. He suffers from arthritis and degenerated discs in his neck.
“I was in so much pain I couldn’t think straight,” he recalled. “I’d do anything to get out of this pain. I’m desperate.”
Patricia Korona, 68 who suffers from severe knee pain caused by lost cartilage agrees.
“You’ll try anything to get rid of that pain and to not have surgery,” she said.
Both Korona and Zapfel saw the same newspaper ads offering “stem cells” treatments to “stop the pain” and “regenerate and repair tissues” for a laundry list of painful medical conditions.
As the ads suggested, both went to seminars like the one Zekman attended undercover, presented by chiropractor Dr. Jill Howe. She operates stem cell clinics under the name “Wellness Institute.”
Both Korona and Zapfel were impressed with Howe’s success stories about stem cell injections, including her own.
“I can jump up and down,” Howe says during her seminars. “I have an ankle joint again, where before I didn’t have one.”
“I thought, wow,” Korona recalled. “That’s impressive.”
“That would be miraculous,” says Dr. Jason Dragoo, an orthopedic surgeon from Stanford University and one of several stem cell researchers we consulted for our reports.
“There’s no evidence that that actually occurs.” he said. “There’s no data to suggest that you can get a brand new ankle joint and to regrow your cartilage.”
But that’s what Howe claimed in seminars attended by potential patients.
“They said they would regenerate the cartilage,” Korona recalled.
She paid $4500 for injections in her knee, but the pain continued. Later X-rays were ordered by her orthopedic surgeon.
“He found bone on bone,” Korona said. “No cartilage grew, which tells me it failed; didn’t work.”
Zapfel paid $14,000 for stem cell injections on each side of his neck and his shoulder.
But an MRI taken by his current doctor showed no improvement.
“They ripped me off, and I was mad.” Zapfel said.
We could not reach Howe to ask about these patients, but Zekman did find her last fall.
“I have some questions for you about your presentations that you make to people,” Zekman said as Howe got into her car.
“Our purpose is to help people get better and stay better,” Howe said.
“Are you cheating people by giving them false hope?” Zekman asked. “Are you giving them false hope?”
Howe pulled away in her car.
Since our first story aired last November, we’ve been asking the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, the state agency that licenses and disciplines doctors and chiropractors what the agency is doing to protect patients.
The DPR spokesperson said the agency “needs evidence” to take action to discipline them. For starters, Zekman showed DPR officials the ads claiming their treatments offer effective solutions for treating painful conditions, including osteoarthritis of the knee; neuropathy; and back, neck and shoulder pain.
The DPR spokesperson declined to comment on camera. So did DPR’s medical coordinator, Dr. Brian Zachariah, who said he had seen the ads but could not comment without permission from higher officials.
We have not heard back from them.
Last year, the Federation of State Medical Boards recommended what state regulators can do to protect desperate patients from what it described as “unscrupulous practitioners” offering unproven stem cell treatments. Among the recommendations, the report said regulators should watch for deceptive marketing claims; and make sure physicians have documented evidence to support treatment claims, and are not charging excessive fees.
Dr. Scott Steingard, D.O., helped write the report. We showed him our investigation from last November, which he described as “shocking.”
“I am very hopeful if medical boards see an inappropriate case of stem cells or regenerative therapies that they would take appropriate action,” Steingard said.
The report notes only 17 of 51 medical boards have investigated claims against physicians offering stem cell treatments, and only 8 have taken disciplinary action. The federation declined to identity the states.
Zekman asked DPR’s medical coordinator about the federation’s report and whether his agency is adopting its recommendations.
“I can’t comment on that unless the department says I can,” Dr. Zachariah said.
Now both Zapfal and Korona have filed complaints with DPR saying they were mislead by Howe and the Wellness Institute.
“They said it was FDA approved,” Zapfel recalled. It’s not.
They said the treatments have “an 88 percent success rate,” Korona recalled. That’s unproven.
Now they want their money back and want the state to take action.
“How much longer can people have faith in the regulators, if they let this go on?” Zapfel said.
“The state should get involved and close them all down,” Korona said.
Complaints on stem cell clinics or treatments can be filed with the following agencies.
Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation | Phone: 312/814-6910