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State Agencies Leading Crackdown On Questionable Stem Cell Clinics

(CBS) -- Patients in pain have been paying thousands of dollars for stem cell treatments that don't work.

Now Illinois' Department of Professional regulation and the Attorney General are both launching investigations thanks to reports by CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman about stem cell clinics selling false hope to vulnerable people.

Frank Mahon and Patricia Korona paid $4,500 each for injections in a knee.

"They said they would regenerate the cartilage," Korona recalled after attending a seminar

"And you'll be able to walk again without pain," said Mahon, who attended a different seminar but heard the same pitch from the Wellness Institute.

Amira Kekic paid $8,500 for injections of stem cells in both knees and John Zapfel paid $14,000 for injections in his neck and shoulder, also at the Wellness Institute.

"They ripped me off, and I was mad," Zapfel said.

Now the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation and the Attorney General's office are investigating the complaints.

"We can and will discipline them ranging from a reprimand through fines, suspensions all the way to revoking their license," said Dr. Brian Zachariah,  DPR's medical coordinator.

That's a far cry from the DPR reaction CBS 2 got in April from the agency's former media representative when CBS 2 tried to find out what the state has been doing since the station's reports began seven months earlier.

At the time, he said the agency "needed evidence," and ignored evidence in huge newspaper ads and infomercials claiming unproven stem cell injections could relieve all kinds of ailments.

Dr. Zachariah said he had seen the ads but needed permission from higher officials in the former Gov. Rauner administration to talk to CBS 2 on camera.

Now, under Gov. Pritzker's administration, Dr. Zachariah agreed to an on camera interview about the investigation and to warn people about the huge increase in stem cell clinics.

"I want to take the time to thank you for helping us educate the public and the providers on this," Dr. Zachariah said.

"Most of these things are unproven at best and doctors should be informing patients properly what the risks and benefits are and not be overhyping or overselling any type of treatment."

CBS 2 disclosed a network of clinics in the city and suburbs attracted patients with newspaper ads, infomercials and seminars.  CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman attended undercover to document their claims like those made by Jill Howe, a chiropractor who owns the Wellness Institute in Schaumburg and Crystal Lake and a third clinic in Gurnee.

Posing as an interested patient at a seminar, Zekman asked Howe what her success rate was with stem cell injections.

"About 80 percent," Howe said.

"80 percent?" Zekman asked.

"Hips, knees, absolutely," Howe responded.

Absolutely unproven in FDA approved clinical trials, experts say.

During the interview with Dr. Zachariah, Zekman asked, "They tell people the stem cells will swim to the damage areas and fix it. Is that true?"

"There is no medical evidence that something injected systemically will go to the one damaged part of the body," he responded.

Since CBS 2's reports the front page wrap-around newspaper ads have disappeared. Jill Howe has shut down two of her three clinics.

But now, providers could face disciplinary action if they make unsupported claims, use  unqualified staff, or overcharge patients to a name a few potential violations.

"The department is concerned the same way that you are concerned," Dr. Zachariah said.

"People are being misled, oversold, over charged on therapies that they are desperate to get."
And a spokeswoman for the Illinois Attorney General's office says they will be looking at whether clinic operators have violated the consumer protection act.

The state agencies are asking for patients with similar complaints to file them with the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation or the Attorney general.

To file complaints: The Illinois Department of Professional Regulation Or Call: 312-814-6910

The Illinois Attorney General: 1-877-305-5145

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