CHICAGO (CBS) -- They are accused of selling a miracle. Inject stem cells and walk again. You can even grow a new shoulder.
CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman exposes a group of clinics accused by paying patients of ripping them off.
Frank Mahon, 87, says the pain in his knees was "just horrible" and "nothing stops it." So when he heard a radio ad for the amniotic stem cell injections he went to Wellness Institute in Crystal Lake for help.
"They said they could inject the stem cells," Mahon recalled and "you'll be able to walk again without pain."
He paid $4,500 for an injection in one knee.
Amira Kekic, 66, heard about the treatments by word of mouth. The pain in her knees was so disabling, she could no longer work as a hotel housekeeper so she went to the Wellness Institute in Schaumburg for injections. She paid $8,500 to have both knees injected at once.
Her son, Nermin Kekic, went with her.
"She felt this was a good option and very happy that this procedure would be able to remove the pain," he said.
In a sophisticated ad campaign, patients read the pitch for "remarkable treatments that can stop the pain" for all kinds of conditions. There is also an infomercial online and on TV featuring Dr. Jill Howe, a chiropractor who owns the clinics Kekic and Mahon went to for amniotic stem cell injections.
She also owns a third Wellness Institute in Gurnee.
In the infomercial on the website of stemcelltherapyforpain.com, Howe explains how the treatments work.
"It's injected into the area that's injured," she said, and then will go in and "regenerate tissue that you're missing so you can get new cartilage, you can get new knees, you can get new shoulders, new nerves."
Experts say we're not there yet, but hope ongoing clinical trials will expand the use of stem cells.
"Our belief is that there are many companies operating in the United States that are selling fake stem cell therapies that are not legal under FDA regulations," says Dr. Sean Morrison, a stem cell biologist and researcher at The University of Texas Southwestern, and past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.
"One of the things that we see among people selling fake stem cell therapies is they jump in early without testing whether something is safe and effective and start selling it to desperate patients," Morrison said. "Our belief at the International Society for Stem Cell Research is that there are many companies operating in the United States that are selling fake stem cell therapies that are not legal under FDA regulations."
The Food and Drug Administration has announced a crackdown on stem cell clinics in other states using unproven treatments. And the Federal Trade Commission recently won a case against other clinics the agency accused of deceptive advertising.
But in the Chicago area we continued to hear amazing claims pitched to vulnerable patients in seminars we attended with hidden cameras.
At a seminar in Huntley, Jill Howe added a personal touch describing how stem cells repaired her injured right ankle.
"I can jump up and down," Howe said, demonstrating. "On X-ray, I have an ankle joint again on the right-hand side, where before I didn't have one."
"That would be miraculous," said Dr. Jason Dragoo, Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Stanford University, a leading expert in stem cell research for cartilage regeneration.
"There's no evidence that that actually occurs," Dr. Dragoo said. "There's no data to suggest that you can get a brand new ankle joint and to regrow your cartilage."
At another seminar in Crystal Lake, CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman questioned Howe from a patients' point of view, asking for her success rate.
"About 80 percent," Howe said. "Hips, knees absolutely."
A success rate we heard at several seminars.
"Great. Show us the data," said Dr. Dragoo, who said they should prove it with scientifically accepted clinical trials approved by the FDA and "publish the data."
"Show it to everyone," Dragoo said.
As a possible new patient, Zekman said to Dr. Howe, "I'm told there is no proof that stem cells work as you described."
"Who said that, an orthopedist?" Howe asked.
When Zekman said yes, Howe responded, "You've got to consider the source."
Our sources for this report included half a dozen experts in various medical fields from several respected universities and medical organizations who all agreed there was no scientific proof to backup or her claims or those made by other seminar leaders or clinic owners.
Like Dr. Kenneth Olson, a chiropractor who owns the Pure Health clinic in Aurora. At a seminar he told the assembled group, "We're literally removing the arthritic process or reversing the arthritic process."
After Olson failed to return her calls, Zekman caught up with him in person outside his clinic, and asked how he could make the claims he makes in seminars about these treatments.
Olson responded by telling Zekman "You're not allowed in the practice," and shut the clinic door on her.
Then there's Jeanette Emmanuel, who spoke at seminars representing Dr. Thom Lobe, a pediatric surgeon. He also owns a Gold Coast private practice called Regeneveda, where he performs stem cell therapies.
In a video presentation at the seminar, Dr. Lobe said, "We truly want to help you get out of pain."
Emmanuel told seminar attendees, "if you have type 2 diabetes, it can regenerate your pancreas."
At another point, she said, "we just had a woman who has epilepsy and we injected the nose area with stem cells and they went directly into her brain."
Dr. Dragoo smiled when shown our tape of that claim.
"Why are you smiling at that one?" Zekman asked.
"Not possible now, and not anatomically possible either," Dr. Dragoo said.
Through his attorney, Dr. Lobe denies any connection to the ads, the seminars, and the two chiropractors. But they refer to him as their medical director or partner to whom they refer more complicated cases for infusions of umbilical cord blood stem cells.
"If you're rheumatoid, fibromyalgia, Parkinson's, MS, diabetes, Alzheimers, COPD, cardiovascular problems; those are the number one conditions that our partner, Dr. Lobe addresses," Olson said during a seminar.
Now Mahon and Kekic say their pain was not helped by the stem cell injections at Jill Howe's clinics.
Mahon called to complain.
"I'd like to know if I could get my money back," said Mahon. "And all I heard was a click."
Recently taken X-rays show Kekic's knees still have no cartilage padding. They are bone-on-bone.
"I think they just sold a false hope to her," said her son.
He said the pain was "excruciating. The fact that we could not set up a follow-up appointment was really upsetting. She felt betrayed."
Howe failed to return Zekman's phone calls so she tried to get answers for Mahon and Kekic as Howe left another seminar.
"I have some questions for you about your presentations that you make to people," Zekman explained.
"Our purpose is to help people get better and help people stay better," Howe said.
"Are you cheating people by giving them false hope?" Zekman asked as Howe got into her car.
"Are you giving them false hope?" Zekman asked again.
As Howe drove away, Zekman tried to show her releases from Mahon and Kekic explaining that these former patients are complaining they did not get any treatment that helped them. They paid thousands of dollars and got no help.
Howe drove off.
CBS 2 Investigators will be following up on the story with questions that still need to be answered by clinic operators and agencies that are supposed to regulate them.
Meanwhile, through his attorney, Dr. Lobe said that he fired Emmanuel for going "off script" with some claims she made at her seminars. And he said he no longer participates in the seminars.
We should note that the infomercial this group uses has appeared on CBS 2, but will no longer play on our station or other CBS stations around the country.
The Federal Trade Commission is now looking at deceptive claims made by the stem cell clinics in this report.
For more information on Food and Drug Administration's regulations on stem cell therapies, visit the FDA's site for details and consumer updates.
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