Stem Cell Fraud: A 60 Minutes investigation

The Internet is full of websites selling unproven stem cell treatments for incurable illnesses. Scott Pelley confronts one disgraced doctor offering false hope to a family with a disabled child.

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

Dr. Dan Ecklund claims he can treat dozens of diseases using stem cells. But there's a problem. Ecklund is a disgraced doctor whose medical license was revoked in 2005. That hasn't kept him from founding a company and a website that offer hope where science cannot. Scott Pelley investigates the lucrative business of miracle stem cell "cures." It's 21st century snake oil being peddled to desperate people, including the parents of one young boy, Adam Susser, who has cerebral palsy and is blind and quadriplegic.

The following is a script of "Stem Cell Fraud" which aired on Jan. 8, 2012. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Oriana Zill and Michael Rey, producers.

There's no greater desperation than to be told that you, or your child, has a disease for which there is no hope. Many people with incurable illness look forward to the promise of stem cells. Stem cells have the potential to turn into any kind of cell and, in theory, they could repair damaged cells though scientists tell us that we're years away from realizing that dream. There is no stem cell miracle today, so conmen have moved in to offer the hope that science cannot. Just look online and you will find hundreds of credible looking websites offering stem cell cures in overseas clinics.

Two years ago we began investigating stem cell charlatans. We worked with patients suffering from incurable diseases and we discovered conmen, posing as doctors, conducting dangerous medical experiments.

[Scott Pelley: You know, Mr. Stowe, the trouble is that you're a conman.]

Our report started a federal investigation.

Since that story, we have been digging into the rapidly growing trade in fake stem cell cures. And we've found something even more alarming: illegal stem cell transplants that are dangerous and delivered to your doorstep. They're scams that often bilk the desperate out of their last dollar of savings and their last ounce of hope.

Anatomy of a 60 Minutes hidden-camera interview
Where'd they hide the cameras? Watch this behind-the-scenes breakdown as the crew sets up a surprise interview

[Brandon Susser: I know you're tired.]

Adam and Brandon Susser are 11-year-old twins. Adam has cerebral palsy, his brain was damaged by a lack of oxygen before he and his brother were born.

Gary Susser: He's confined to a wheelchair. He needs assistance with all his daily living activities from cleanliness to feeding, to clothing.

Gary and Judy Susser have searched for anything that might improve on the judgment handed down by Adam's doctors.

Gary Susser: The sentence of being a quadriplegic, the sentence of being totally blind, the pronouncement by physicians that we should put him away.

Scott Pelley: Those were the things that his regular doctors were telling you?

Gary Susser: Correct. We were being advised literally, "Put him away. He's gonna destroy your life."

So back in 2003, the Sussers took a chance on the theory of stem cells. Adam was three. They brought him to a doctor in Mexico who injected stem cells with no idea whether they would work.

Judy Susser: We both decided that in the severity of his condition that we'd have to try it.

Apparently, there was no harm and no miracle.

Gary Susser: The progress that he made after that was minimal at best and therefore we didn't see any good coming out of it.

Today, people like the Sussers can find hundreds of sophisticated websites offering stem cell treatments for every hopeless disease.