Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg of Duke University tells Scott Pelley that stem cells purchased from one of the hundreds of websites promising stem cell cures for incurable diseases could actually cause a patient serious harm. The chief scientific officer for Duke's stem cell research program spoke to Pelley as part of an eight-month investigation into the illicit stem cell industry.
In the report, "60 Minutes" cameras capture a disgraced doctor trying to sell an unproven stem cell treatment to the parents of a child with cerebral palsy. Pelley's investigation will be broadcast on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, Jan. 8 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Kurtzberg decries the websites offering unproven stem cell remedies for what are currently incurable diseases like autism, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's and every kind of cancer. She hears from patients who see those websites and has to inform them that thus far, stem cells have been used to successfully treat leukemia and a few rare genetic diseases and nothing else. "It's very dishonest to mislead people when there is nothing you can do," says Kurtzberg. "I believe stem cells have a lot of promise, but we are way at the infancy," she tells Pelley.
"60 Minutes" worked with Gary and Judy Susser, parents of Adam, who has cerebral palsy, to investigate one of the online purveyors of stem cell treatments, Stem Tech Labs of Ecuador. Such labs are offshore because what they are doing is mostly illegal in the U.S. The lab, run by an American doctor named Dan Ecklund whose license to practice medicine was revoked in Alabama, promises a "modern day miracle" and "treating or curing over 70 diseases." "60 Minutes" cameras captured Ecklund on a teleconference from Ecuador promising the Sussers that Adam would have a "75 percent chance...he would have a noticeable improvement." He would come to Florida to administer four stem cell transplants for which he would charge $5,000 each. In a Miami-area hotel room set with hidden cameras, Pelley confronts Ecklund about his intentions to treat the child.
"60 Minutes" purchased some stem cells from Ecklund's website and had Kurtzberg examine them in her lab at Duke. Dr. Kurtzberg discovered that only 100 of the 20 million umbilical cord blood stem cells bought for $5,000 were still alive. The dead cells are cellular debris and dangerous says Kurtzberg. "There are huge dangers if you inject that into someone's blood or spinal fluid because all these little fragments and debris would get trapped somewhere in the bloodstream and could cause a stroke...do a great deal of harm," Kurtzberg tells Pelley.
Adam, 11, did not get the treatments; his parents had been down that route before in 2003 when they took him to Mexico for similar treatments that produced no miracles. The Sussers want others to beware. "People are preyed upon by hucksters and charlatans... It's about getting rich at someone's expense," says Gary Susser. "And people with a special child don't need anymore expense...heartache...false promises. They need the truth and they need hope."